Dairy cows in Fairfield, 2019

Dairy cows graze on an organic farm in Fairfield.

MONTPELIER — On Friday, the Vermont Senate gave its stamp of approval to a bill providing $35 million in coronavirus relief to agriculture and forestry, sending the bill to Governor Phil Scott’s desk.

The House approved the bill, S. 351 on Friday, after adding $5 million to the $30 million initially approved by the Senate. The Scott administration had originally sought $50 million, all focused on the dairy industry.

The House changes increased the amount set aside for dairy to $25 million from the $22.8 million initially set aside by the Senate.

Under the bill as it passed the House on Thursday and the Senate on Friday, dairy farmers will receive $21.2 million in grants from the coronavirus relief fund, and processors $3.8 million.

Another $5 million from the fund will go to non-dairy farmers and producers.

The forestry industry will receive $5 million, an addition made by the House Appropriations Committee. According to the language in the bill, the demand for paper has declined as schools and offices have begun working remotely. That has caused a downturn in the demand for the wood used to make that paper, which is a focus of Vermont’s forestry industry.

With the demand for paper down, pulp chips which would have been used to make paper are all being redirected into wood-fired electric generation facilities, creating lag in that area of the forestry industry, as well.

Any forestry aid funds which have not been expended as of Sept. 15, 2020 will be transferred to the Agency of Commerce and Community Development for distribution in other coronavirus business assistance programs.

An amendment offered by Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, and Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Newbury, provides for $500,000 in assistance to Vermont agricultural fairs and festivals for lost revenues and expenses. At least three such events have been cancelled locally, the Vermont Maple Festival, Vermont Dairy Days and Franklin County Field Days.

That amendment passed the House and was approved by the Senate.

An amendment from Rep. James Gregoire, R-Fairfield, to increase the amount in the dairy relief program to $35 million was withdrawn without a vote. Among its supporters were Rep. Lisa Hango, of Berkshire; Rep. Marianna Gamache, of Swanton; Rep. Felisha Leffler, of Enosburgh; Rep. Carl Rosenquist, of Georgia; Rep. Brian Savage, of Swanton; and Rep. Casey Toof, of St. Albans.

Multiple local farmers testified before the House Agriculture Committee in recent weeks about the need for dairy relief, telling the committee that any aid farmers receive will go right back into the community as farmers use it to pay their vendors.

Rep. Charen Fegard, D-Berkshire, is the only member of the Franklin County delegation on the House Agriculture Committee. Asked about S. 351, she told the Messenger: “I support including funds Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and non-dairy ag operations as some of them have been harmed by Covid-19 while others have done well. I am disheartened at the reduction in funds to dairy. Most of that money will quickly fly out of their bank accounts to pay many millions in debts accrued within the last few months, allowing them to weather the storm and supporting Vermont’s economy by preventing the trickle down devastation of unpaid debt.”

Amanda St. Pierre of the Vermont Dairy Producers Association testified that she has heard from feed dealers that they are collectively holding an estimated $200 million in debt from farmers.

Under the bill as approved by both the House and Senate, dairy farms can received up to the following amounts, based on size:

  • Uncertified small farm: $18,300
  • Certified small farm: $34,300
  • Certified medium farm: $56,000
  • Certified large farm: $100,000

Processors will receive assistance based on the pounds of milk processed per day, with the amount of assistance available ranging from $31,000 for those processing less than 500 pounds to $60,000 for those processing more than 50,000 pounds per day.

In all cases, the applicants will be required to demonstrate economic losses. The dairy assistance will be overseen by the Agency of Agriculture, Farms and Markets. The Vermont Economic Development Agency (VEDA) will oversee the program for non-dairy agricultural producers and Vermont Agency of Natural Resources will administer the forestry program.

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