House rep seeks to make farmers’ plans private

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By Mike Polhamus,

As lawmakers look for ways to fund hundreds of millions of dollars in water pollution reduction measures, the chair of the House agriculture committee is looking for a way to keep from public view documents the state uses to determine farmers’ compliance with environmental regulations.

Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, chair of the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, this month tacked an amendment exempting nutrient management plans from state public-records laws onto S. 276, a bill supporting economic development in Vermont’s rural areas.

Partridge said the plans are business plans, and as such should not be public record.

“Farms are businesses — I think sometimes people forget that — and nutrient management plans are, in large part, their business plans,” Partridge said.

Partridge said she has never actually read a nutrient management plan, but farmers, she said, have told her that nutrient management plans “have a lot to do with the way a farm runs its business.

“I don’t think I need to understand what’s in it … to understand that’s how farmers view these plans,” she said.

Another member of the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, said that on his own farm he has a business plan and a nutrient management plan. Smith said the two plans aren’t the same, but said a nutrient management plan is part of a farm’s business plan.

Vermont’s Clean Water Act, Act 64, requires Vermont farmers to have nutrient management plans in place to ensure they’re not polluting public waters with excess fertilizer.

Partridge said the public doesn’t need to see the pollution-control plans because she trusts that the Agency of Agriculture will appropriately uphold the law.

“I trust the agency, if there’s a problem, and a farmer’s not following [the law], that the agency will take measures to correct that,” Partridge said.

Farms are a primary source of water pollution in Vermont, according to the Environmental Protection Agency order calling for a reduction in nutrients that add to pollution in public waters.

While the nutrient management plans are by law publicly available, they have been rendered effectively off-limits. The Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets told VTDigger last year that it would charge $30,000-plus for nutrient farm management records.

The Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets has supported exempting nutrient management plans from public records law, with the endorsement of Sen. Robert “Bobby” Starr, D-Essex-Orleans.

The agency has often found itself at cross purposes, since by law it is obliged both to regulate and promote the interests of Vermont farmers.

Farming advocates say nutrient management plans were never meant to serve a regulatory purpose. Nutrient management plans describe steps farmers take to prevent manure and fertilizers (“nutrients”) from polluting rivers, streams and lakes. The plans also address expected yields, soil characteristics, fertilization methods and crop sequences.

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