COLCHESTER, Vt. – Vermont farmers have a list of priorities they want the Legislature to address in the upcoming session and have higher hopes that state government can help to ensure their viability.
Murray Thompson, 43, who milks 80 Guernseys and Holsteins on the Colchester farm his family settled in 1797, wants lawmakers to fix the weakened right-to-farm law and tackle the conflicts over use of genetically engineered seeds.
If the state really wanted to keep Vermont farms healthy in the long run, he said, the state government would invest in teaching children that good-tasting whole milk is also good for you.
“Consumers are taught they have to drink 1 percent milk. One percent milk doesn’t taste like milk – it’s watered down,” he said. “If eating is the most important thing people do, why is there not more education in the schools about where food comes from?”
For the first time in decades, Vermont has a governor with direct ties to agriculture. That has raised farmers’ hopes – and expectations – for more action in the capital, Montpelier, to keep farms strong.
Gov. Jim Douglas married into the dairying Foster family of Middlebury. He promised to make farm issues a priority and last spring pushed an emergency farm loan bill to help cash-strapped dairies.
“Jim Douglas knows what agriculture is all about – at least, he understands what the cousins and in-laws are up against better than recent administrations,” said Tim Buskey, executive director of the Vermont Farm Bureau.
Some farmers are more skeptical. “This year’s Legislature needs to do more than offer low-interest loans,” said Craig Russell of Randolph. “The last thing farmers need is more debt.”
Others say the Douglas administration has not done enough to help them get a better price for their milk.
The Douglas administration farm agenda for 2004 focuses more on shorter-term issues than the long-term battle to raise milk prices.
Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr doesn’t believe that Northeastern states can independently raise prices for their farmers.
“I fear we’re just going to have to continue to work on Congress” to raise prices, he said.
At the top of Douglas’ list for the 2004 Legislature sits the state’s right-to-farm law, Kerr said.
The law is intended to protect farmers in developing areas from nuisance suits by neighbors who object to a farm’s sounds or smells.
In a decision this fall, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that an Orwell orchard was not protected by the law.
Kerr said he fears the weakened law just contributes to an unfriendly environment for farming.
Legislative staff members are drafting a bill to restore the protections farmers believe they have lost. House Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Ruth Towne, R-Berlin, said it will be her first order of business this session, which opens Jan. 6.
The session’s most contentious farm issue might be the fight over genetically engineered seeds.
Conventional dairy farmers don’t want to lose their ability to plant genetically engineered seed corn.