GMO bill splits local legislators by party

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Wheat at Butterworks Farm in Westfield is grown organically, with no genetic modifications.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Wheat at Butterworks Farm in Westfield is grown organically, with no genetic modifications. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle May 21, 2014

by Bethany M. Dunbar

Orleans County farmers and consumers won’t be immediately affected by Vermont’s first-in-the-nation passage of legislation requiring labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients.

The legislation allows two years for the rulemaking process, and potential challenges are brewing in the courts and in Congress in the meantime.

“I’m really proud of Vermont as a state,” said Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farm in Westfield, a leader in the organic farming movement. He said he has always thought those who like genetically modified organisms (GMOs) ought to be happy to include them on their labels.

“Well, if it’s that safe, label it and be proud of it,” he said.

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Wildlife management area created as working dairy farm is saved

Bill and Ursula Johnson sold their landmark dairy farm in Canaan, Vermont, creating a wildlife area at the same time. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle 8-8-2012

CANAAN — A landmark working dairy farm here has been sold to a young farm family while a new wildlife area was created, protecting six miles of frontage on the Connecticut River and ensuring public access for fishermen, campers, and bird watchers.

It was a complicated deal and one lots of people wanted to celebrate at the Bill and Ursula Johnson farm on Friday, August 3.  About 70 people attended, including the heads of several state agencies, plus local legislators — Senator Bob Starr and Representative Bob Lewis.

Secretary Deb Markowitz of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources said the Johnsons’ sense of civic duty in wanting to make the whole thing happen was laudable.

“This is just one more example of what it means to be a Vermonter,” she said.

Secretary Chuck Ross of the Agency of Agriculture said when he was approached about this idea that it was so clearly a wonderful project that it was a “no-brainer.”

Vermont Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Pat Berry said the project is unusual because it brings together three of Vermont’s top values:  working lands, conservation, and public access.

“Look around you.  This is a big deal,” he said.

Bob Klein of the Nature Conservancy agreed.  “What makes Vermont so special is the integration of those things,” he said.  “Every project is a manifestation of a collection of values.  Conservation isn’t something somebody else does.”

The deal took more than two years to put together.  The Johnsons sold 849 acres, of which 583 is being kept in farming, with conservation easements.  The remaining 266 is being made into a state-owned Wildlife Management Area (WMA).  The property and easements cost $1.45-million, according to Tracy Zschau, regional director of the Vermont Land Trust.

She said the first step was to buy the conservation easement, which was about $450,000 of the total cost.

The first main funding source was the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation’s Upper Connecticut River Mitigation and Enhancement Fund.  Representatives of the fund put up the money for the easement plus the additional $1-million to buy the property, with the understanding that VLT would find others to help share the cost.

In the long run, Ms. Zschau said, other funding sources agreed to help, and the New Hampshire group ended up paying under $500,000.

Funds came in from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service, Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

The Nelson family bought the working dairy farm.

Cy and Andrea Nelson bought the 583-acre working farm, with easements in place, for $965,000.  The Nelsons will also have a free lease on 50 acres of land within the state-owned WMA in exchange for allowing public access to the river.

Mr. Nelson said he was glad to have the opportunity.  It was not a simple decision though.

“It was a big commitment financially and for our family in general,” he said.  Cy is the son of Doug Nelson, who was also on hand for the celebration.

“I’ve worked for him on the family farm since I was a kid,” he said.  Now he and his wife, Andrea, have a two-year-old daughter of their own, named Sloan.  They are expecting again soon.

Mr. Nelson said the Johnsons helped make the transition very smooth.  The Nelsons are employing the same five workers the Johnsons did, which they said has made a big difference.  Some of the employees live in housing on the farm.

Cy and Andrea Nelsons have 215 milking cows in Canaan and 250 in Coventry.  He said the river-bottom rock-free land on the Johnson farm is ideal for farming, and the corn is doing extremely well this year.

“I think we’re as good as anything,” he said.

“The dairy industry is a pretty unique industry.  Our profits are always fluctuating.”

Bill and Ursula Johnson have retired as farmers, but Mr. Johnson still serves the area in the state House of Representatives.  Mr. Johnson represents the towns of Brighton, Canaan, East Haven, Lemington, Newark, Norton, and Westmore.  Ursula Johnson worked in the field of conservation.

Over and over again in the course of the day, officials remarked on what a wonderful job the couple had done keeping the land in great shape.  Where many farmers would have drained a lot of the wetlands in order to make more pasture or hay land, the Johnsons kept a lot of it intact, and as a result there is a tremendous abundance and variety of birds and wildlife.  On Friday, people saw half a dozen great blue herons, a northern harrier (marsh hawk), and several other species of birds.

After the speeches, people were invited to take tours of the farm or two parts of the WMA.  One was north of the main barn, and the other was south into part of Lemington.

“There’s not a written plan for this area yet,” said Fritz Gerhardt of Beck Pond LLC, a conservation scientist who led the Lemington tour and pointed out some highlights in the farm land and wetlands.  The WMA plans for the whole state will be discussed at a public hearing in Montpelier on August 21.  People who have ideas for what should be done with the property will have a chance to give their opinions.

Joan Allen of The Nature Conservancy, Ms. Zschau and Jane Lazorchak of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department were credited as being the three masterminds behind the complicated project.

“This is exemplary by national standards,” said David Govatski, president of Friends of Pondicherry, based in New Hampshire.  Mr. Govatski did a bird survey for the land trust that showed 89 species, some of them rare.  He said the wetlands are home to hundreds of wood ducks, American bitterns, and purple sandpipers to name a few.  Of the species found in the survey, 30 species of special concern to conservationists were noted.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Featuring pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital  editions.

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Starr, Rodgers, Johnson prevail in Primary election

by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle 8-29-2012

State Senate candidates Bob Starr and John Rodgers and Representative Bill Johnson came out on top in local Primary elections Tuesday.

Mr. Starr and Mr. Rodgers survived a three-way contest for two nominations on the Democratic ballot with James Guyette of Derby Line.  Mr. Starr, of North Troy, is the one incumbent.  Mr. Rodgers of Glover has served in the House but not in the Senate before.

Mr. Johnson of Canaan, the incumbent, defeated challenger Maurice Connary of Brighton to claim the single Republican nomination in his Essex-Caledonia-Orleans District.  There were no Democratic or Progressive candidates on the ballot in the district.

Voter turnout for Orleans and parts of Essex counties was extremely low, about 9 to 10 percent.

Every vote counted.  In fact, in Bloomfield, Mr. Johnson got one vote, and his opponent had none.

With all towns in the Essex-Caledonia-Orleans district reporting except Lemington, the votes were 72 for Mr. Johnson and 25 for Mr. Connary.

“I’ve always thought it’s been an honor to serve my constituents,” said Mr. Johnson.  He has recently retired from dairy farming and has served in the House for 17 years.

He said he looks forward to going back to the Legislature, especially if he is reappointed to the Ways and Means Committee which handles taxes.

“One of the things that the Legislature has got to figure out is how to pay for the new health care,” he said.

“It’s going to take all of the resources that we can muster,” he said, mentioning that health care is one-fifth of Vermont’s total economy.  “It will probably be a payroll tax.”

Mr. Johnson said he had been afraid voter turnout would be very low.  In his home town of Canaan, he and his wife voted two hours after the polls had opened and were the first to vote.

The state Senate

 Not all the towns reported in as of press time Tuesday evening, but with all but a handful of results, it seemed clear that Mr. Starr and Mr. Rodgers would prevail.  Mr. Starr, who has 33 years of experience serving the voters in Montpelier, was top vote-getter with 947, and Mr. Rodgers had 816 to Mr. Guyette’s 476.

“If I win I’d just like to thank my supporters,” said Mr. Rodgers.  He said he looks forward to debates and forums and any chance he can get to get out there and make sure the voters know who he is.

Mr. Starr and Mr. Rodgers, the Democrats, will square off against Republicans Bob Lewis of Derby, who stepped down a representative for Orleans-1 in order to run for Senate, and Jay Dudley of Barton.

In the tightest statewide race of the day, at press time with 95 percent of precincts reporting, the incumbent attorney general, William Sorrell, was ahead with 20,614 votes compared to 20,000 votes for his challenger, Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan, according to WCAX’s website.

In Orleans County and nine Essex County towns, Mr. Sorrell had 612 votes and Mr. Donovan had 523.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at:  bethany@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Editor’s Pick pages.  For all the Chronicle‘s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital.

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