Farmers Say Proposed Regulations Could Threaten Vermont's Small Farms

Mar 3, 2016

Since his first days in office, Gov. Peter Shumlin has sought to bring about a “renaissance” in Vermont agriculture, and he’s dedicated special focus to small, diversified farms. But the owners of many of those small farms say proposed new regulations could threaten their operations.

Dozens of farmers braved brutal road conditions last week to attend what was billed as “small farm action day” at the Statehouse. Peter Burmeister was one of them.

Burmeister says he’s invested significant resources into the small livestock farm and poultry processing facility on his property in Berlin.

“And I fear for its future when I look at these regulations and the potential impact on the cost of doing business,” Burmeister says.

The regulations Burmeister’s refers to are what is known in statutory lingo as “Required Agricultural Practices.” The latest version of the 30-page regulatory proposal had been issued only a day prior to the Statehouse event.

Andrea Stander is executive director of Rural Vermont, an advocacy group that works on behalf of small farmers. Stander says the draft regulations arrive right at the beginning of the planting season.

“And virtually every person who’s here who’s a small farmer has no time, I mean no time, literally no time to look at these things, to formulate comments, to submit them,” Stander says.

"I fear for [my farm's] future when I look at these regulations and the potential impact on the cost of doing business." — Peter Burmeister

Stander says the rules are supposed to go into effect by July 1. She says that leaves scant time for busy farmers to understand what’s in the regulations, or which rules their operations would have to comply with.

Farmers say they’ve already found some potential problems in the draft. Williamston Rep. Rodney Graham, a Republican, says he’d recently spoken with a small dairy farmer in his district. Graham says the farmer told him that the requirement to extend buffer setbacks on streams from 10 feet to 25 feet would likely put his farm out of business.

Kate Bowen owns Meadowdale Farm in Putney, a diversified operation that does pastured meat, eggs, hay, sap and forest products. Bowen says the regulations would put “micro-farms” like hers under the regulatory jurisdiction of local municipal boards, instead of the Agency of Agriculture.

“These municipal boards potentially have no agriculture education or experience,” Bowen says.

Stander says giving local boards oversight of agriculture operations could have other consequences.

“How would there be fairness? It might depend on which town you lived in as to how your farm was treated,” Stander says.

"The towns could regulate the structure but they couldn't regulate the activity, and so it’s just giving them the ability to do both." — Laura DiPietro, deputy director of the Division of Agricultural Resource Management at the Agency of Agriculture

Laura DiPietro, deputy director of the Division of Agricultural Resource Management at the Agency of Agriculture, says input from hundreds of small farmers helped shape the latest proposal.

“So I think they will be pleased once they do read the rule on many fronts,” DiPietro says.

As for giving towns regulatory authority over micro-farms, she says municipalities already have some control over those types of operations.

“And so the towns could regulate the structure but they couldn’t regulate the activity, and so it’s just giving them the ability to do both,” DiPietro says. 

DiPietro says the state is eager to understand farmers’ concerns and ready to help address them. Board members of Rural Vermont are meeting with agency officials on Thursday.