On Water Quality
It’s been said that what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves. That is, if we become disconnected from protecting our water, which we depend on to survive, we are only hurting ourselves. Vermont farmers who care for our natural resources know this best. Chuck Ross, Director of UVM Extension, often says, “We don't get to water quality without agriculture.”
I support the EPA’s plan for guiding how much phosphorus can go into the lake for it to be healthy - called the Total Daily Maximum Load (TMDL). The EPA found that agriculture has been the greatest contributor of phosphorus to Lake Chaplain at 41%. In the last two years, as a dairy farmer, I’ve seen firsthand that agriculture is the biggest and most economically feasible way to reduce phosphorus going into the lake. Estimates are by as much as 60%. Phosphorus reduction from agricultural land also costs 44 times less than improvements to developed land practices. Bigger returns with a smaller investment – it’s a no brainer.
I also support the pathway to achieve this drastic reduction that was legislated in 2016, called the Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs). These RAPs are the most robust laws and rules in the country. Following the RAPs is not optional. It is a requirement for all farms no matter the size or type, and the state is the regulatory authority for enforcement. Farmers need more support in implementing these practices – like planting crops on fields all year long to prevent erosion of soil in the winter and spring. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and UVM Extension have reported that farmers have increased winter cover crops by more than 60% since 2015 and conserved more than 150 tons of nutrients in the soil just last year, but we can do more. Recently, on our farm, we’ve invested in equipment that plants seeds without tilling, thereby reducing erosion and carbon emissions from soil, as well as a manure application
system that prevents run-off.
The EPA is monitoring the progress of agriculture and other sectors with annual assessments. Last April, the EPA reported that the Agency of Agriculture met all its milestones. Yet, we know that legacy phosphorus in the lake from practices decades ago will not disappear overnight. We are steadfast on our mission. We have the needed funding through 2021. I will work to find creative ways to fund this work for 2022 forward.
What about other ways phosphorus gets into the lake? Streambank erosion makes up 21%, developed land is 18%, forests are 16%, and wastewater treatment facilities are 4%. Regular reports of discharges from wastewater treatment plants are alarming. Unlike agriculture, it is legal and within their permits. There is no doubt that it needs to be fixed. Yet, in this critical time, what improvements will give us the biggest return on our investment? The answer lies in investing in improvements to the state’s thousands of acres of agricultural land. As a Vermont Senator, alongside Paul Ralston, I will strongly encourage our fellow elected leaders to find innovative solutions that will have the greatest, most cost effective impact to improve our lake.
On Climate Change
I am proud of Vermont’s commitment to the global imperative to reduce our carbon footprint. Strategies for reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and sequestering carbon in our working lands and forests are critical for meeting this goal.
Let’s use residential and commercial buildings as a prime example of this. This sector contributes 23.9% of our greenhouse gas emissions. When incentivized, homeowners and business owners can do their part to weatherize buildings, invest in renewable energy, or install efficient heating and cooling systems. In turn, career centers can develop training programs to teach Vermonters how to perform this work. Did you know there are programs intended to help low-income households weatherize their homes, but there are not enough skilled workers available to meet this need?
Transportation is another example. It is by far the greatest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions at 43.3%. Towns and cities must have an eye on smart growth with plans that reduce the need for vehicle use: developing walkable communities with homes, amenities, and necessities nearby, and implementing public transportation systems. Vermonters who can afford to do so will be encouraged to purchase electric vehicles as municipalities create EV charging stations.
This conversation would be incomplete without agriculture. Though a small contributor of carbon emissions, our working lands and forests draw down (sequester) carbon. The good news is that the same practices being adopted to improve water quality provide the co-benefits of building healthy soils and forests that we can depend on to clean the air we breathe. And I don’t want to leave out the untapped potential of our farms in providing renewable energy.
Many environmental advocates support implementing a carbon tax, but I do not believe this is the best way for Vermont to reduce carbon. Taxation is a regressive approach that will disproportionately affect rural and low-income Vermonters, many of whom have older homes and must drive long distances to work and to buy groceries. Vermonters are motivated by ethical, practical, and financial incentives. Productive, goal-oriented, community-wide initiatives will inform our personal choices until they are part of our culture. Paul Ralston and I want Vermont to be leaders in environmental stewardship, not in taxation. Together, we can do better.
On the Dairy Farming Crisis
Dairy farmers like me understand that farming is no longer just about the milk. The future of farming is not about the numbers of farms or their size, or type of farm. Today, farming success relies on our ability to balance multiple demands while remaining profitable. We need to make products people want to buy, in a way that is healthy for the animals, our communities, and the environment. Improving and maintaining water quality is our priority. We need to adhere to ever-changing and increasing regulations. We need to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. And we need to be early adopters, pursuing opportunities for diversifying our revenue and creating value-added products and services.
Milk in the United States is priced on an antiquated federal system beyond farmers’ control, dating back to the Great Depression. Secretary Tebbetts is correct: solutions will take federal action and working with other states. Congressman Peter Welch said it best: "Dairy farmers want trade, not aid." Dairy is part of a global market. The administration's trade wars are disrupting markets for our whey that we have built over many years. Where we have the most opportunity to strengthen our Vermont farms lies in shifting our approach. When we start from a place that farms are important for our future food security, and they are providing ecosystem benefits for all Vermonters, that farmers want to do good, we can achieve our goals for a sustainable future.
For now, we will continue to see a steady decline in the number of dairy farms. Prolonged periods of depressed milk prices are accelerating the changing face of dairy. Some of our neighbors retire and sell the farm as their retirement. Some farmers, like other businesses, are just not in a position to take several years of bad pay price. It takes a toll. The challenges are many, but one thing is for certain: our farms are important. Dairy helps to keep our dollars local, whether it is in our local cheese plants, local agribusinesses, supply stores, banks, insurance companies, and more. In fact, Vermont Dairy creates $2.2 billion in economic activity in our state each year, approximately $385,000,000 in Addison County.
My family has been farming together since 1958. Farming has always been and always will be all-consuming, hard work. Yet, our next generation remains steadfast. They have chosen to remain in our community and are raising their young families here. To ensure that our hope–and the hope of hundreds of other Vermont farmers–is not misplaced, we need our state government to support our innovation instead of implementing punitive measures. Money is better spent on improvements, and diversification. Farmers and their partners like UVM and NRCS are moving toward a sustainable future. We need more legislators in Montpelier who understand and best represent our unique perspective and challenges. In my running mate Paul Ralston, I have found a solid partner. We can do better.
I may be known as the candidate for agriculture and the environment, but my passion for continually improving education for all Vermonters is just as great. The lives of my own children have been shaped in many wonderful ways by the dedicated teachers in our local schools. I want the same for all of Vermont’s children, and I want all of our teachers to feel supported in their good work.
The next generation of my family is currently experiencing the challenge of finding and affording childcare while trying to balance their careers. I know they are not alone in this. The time is now to address these needs as it goes hand-in-hand with ensuring a sound economy for young families to live and work in Vermont. We know that early childhood education and after-school programs can enhance future education outcomes and socialization of children. Because birth to age 5 is a critical time for developing the physical, intellectual, and emotional skills necessary for success later in life, providing high-quality early education may help to alleviate some of the challenges children face in K-12.
I am encouraged by the considerable amount of groundwork that is being done. Building Bright Futures, for example, has been collaborating since May 2017 on a report to the legislature on a pathway to an early care and learning system. I agree with their assessment that “equitable early care and learning for all children ages birth to five is the most significant investment Vermont can make to provide the greatest positive impact for future generations.” There is also a new Tobacco Settlement-funded program that will study after-school programs as a preventative strategy in combating the opioid epidemic. I’d like to see a day where Vermont is a leader in providing all families with affordable, high-quality childcare.
As in business, and in life, we need to adapt to change. We must recognize the changing needs in education. While I do not advocate reducing what we spend on education, I do support refocusing our priorities. Can we shift some of what we spend on K-12 to birth-to-five? Can we make a greater investment in the early years to prevent some of the challenges we see in K-12? I do not know the answers to these questions, but I think they worth exploring.
I also cannot ignore the greatest concern I hear every day from Vermonters: affordability. In particular, everyone would like to know what I am going to do to reduce property taxes, which is how we fund our education system. Can we consider that it might be time to move some of our education costs from property taxes to the general fund? Let’s continue to support our children with all aspects of their growth and safety, and let’s discuss if there might be a better, more equitable way to pay for it.
Act 46 is the law in Vermont. It passed after much study, discussion and debate. The intent is to provide equity in quality of our education statewide and maximize operational efficiencies. Most of the Addison District made out well in capturing incentives that were written into the law to achieve these goals. Two of our communities, Huntington and Orwell, are struggling with this law; they are concerned that their community as they know it is threatened. I am listening to their concerns and will continue to be engaged as we sort this out, if elected.
On Health Care & Housing
Having access to affordable health care is an issue that touches everyone. We know–because the legislature tried and failed–that having a single payer system on our own does not work. That means that until Senator Sanders and his colleagues can successfully implement a federal “Medicare for all” program, Vermonters will have to use our creativity and collaboration to see us through.
My own experience with healthcare has been frustrating and costly, both as an individual and as a small employer. I know that a lot of Vermonters, like me, must take a wait-and-see approach when it comes to making decisions about our health. “Will I get better on my own,” we wonder. “Or should I bite the bullet and pay so this doesn’t get worse?” I now question my doctor on the need for additional tests over first trying a less expensive course with medications or lifestyle change. Some people say that no one should have to make these decision; others say we need to take control of our own health. One promising pilot created by the legislature is the Accountable Care Organization Program. It is showing good results in treating people to keep them healthy while saving money on health care costs.
I’ve listened to many candidates, across the state, contemplate rising health care costs. Their ideas are diverse, and sometimes at odds with each other. What I can promise is to continue to become informed, work collaboratively with the smartest leaders on this subject, and do what I do best–strive to do better.
One of the biggest demands in a healthy, attractive community is safe, affordable housing close to good jobs, schools, necessities, and amenities. The good news is that most of us are in agreement on the need for affordable housing and smart growth as a part of growing strong, diversified communities. The legislature has provided several types of funding sources to support this. One area where we can do better is in permitting these projects. Currently, permitting is often a complicated, unpredictable, expensive, and protracted process. Developers and business owners often believe they are on the right track, only to later learn they are not. Predictability in permitting would help in the development of new energy efficient housing for all ages and income levels.
On Water Quality
Let’s remember…Our goal is clean water. The goal is not to create a big new tax increase. Yes, we need to spend money on cleaning the waters of the state. The responsibility of state government is to make clean water a funding priority – to direct our resources to remediation and forward practices that actually result in cleaner water.
We learned a big lesson after Tropical Storm Irene. We learned we need to change many long-accepted practices, to direct future public and private spending on projects that were designed with climate change in mind. These aren’t all high-tech or high-cost changes. The most important thing we learned from Irene is that culverts and stream crossings must be sized to handle heavy, localized rain events – one of the realities of climate change. Those changes, now being made in an organized, ongoing budget process, will help reduce the impact and damage of future climate events.
To oversimplify a complex problem, we need to reduce nutrient erosion, runoff, and releases from our land-based activities. We are all responsible, in part, for these activities. They include community developments like impervious surfaces of roads, sidewalks, school buildings and parking lots; community wastewater treatment facilities; commercial developments like buildings and parking; farming; forestry; and erosion from streams and river banks. We are all contributing, and we all have to make changes to adapt.
It’s convenient to blame farm and forestland owners. A better approach is to help farmers and foresters adopt changes that actually help reduce nutrient loss. Anyone who thinks a farmer doesn’t care about nutrient erosion from their land doesn’t know much about farming. Nutrients – phosphorous, nitrogen, potassium, and others – are valuable. They cost money. When they are lost to erosion, it hurts.
Removing nutrients from our water is difficult and expensive. The search for new technologies that can remediate nutrient-rich water needs to be encouraged and incentivized. Challenges that use the “power of the prize” are showing promise – even in our small state with the Phosphorus Challenge. Still, our current task must be to reduce erosion, runoff, and wastewater releases; that is the only cost-effective solution.
Some simple but effective solutions are already at hand. Best management practices for farm and forest land are in place and must be promoted and supported. Where costs are a constraint, we must consider the public good of investment in practices like: closing out steep logging roads and installing water bars and properly-sized culverts; leasing farm and forest riparian zones for long-cycle, deep rooted biomass growth; underwriting costs the market won’t bear in advanced manure and food waste management practices (Act 148); and improving the health of soils to retain water and soluble nutrients. Commercial production and use of biochar in Vermont is an exciting possibility, something that has been used for millennia as a soil amendment. Adding biochar to soil increases soil’s capacity to fix soluble nutrients, creates long-term carbon sequestration, and represents a new market for our struggling forest-products industry. We can do better.
On Climate Change
Climate change is resulting in fast-developing threats. The “discovery” of oil, considered a revolutionary advancement for civilization, is now understood to be an existential concern. Interestingly, the bulk of the Rockefeller fortune accumulated when petroleum was refined into kerosene to replace whale oil for lighting–before adoption of the internal combustion engine. The whale-hunting industry was decimated by this discovery.
There is a growing concern, even a despair, over the effects of climate change. It’s honorable to be a leader in the effort to evolve our climate impact. What matters now are the choices we make that might result in a meaningful contribution in Vermont.
Carbon is one way to measure human impact. Consider the full carbon cycle. The carbon released can be partly balanced by the carbon our land sequesters. Vermont, throughout its non-native settlement history, has undergone a series of changes in our lands’ carbon sequestration capacity - the long-term locking of carbon in forests and soils. New technologies and practices can help improve sequestration. I am especially interested in the potential of biochar to sequester carbon in soils while improving nutrient fixation.
I favor public policy that will incentivize innovation and behavioral change. I prefer an incentive to switch to low-carbon fuels over a tax on all carbon fuels – just like we’ve been doing with non-fossil fuel electricity.
Efficiency and sequestration are our best, most cost-effective, least disruptive strategies. We effectively use incentives through Efficiency Vermont to encourage change in electric consumption. Unfortunately, Efficiency Vermont’s funds come from a surcharge or “tax” on electricity use. As electricity use declines, the funds available for further efficiency work also decline. Efficiency must be a funding priority, and funds must come from broader, less regressive sources.
Our economy is still dependent on truck transportation for most goods– things like food, local micro-brews, trash and recycling, and yes, propane and heating oil deliveries.
We can convert farm, forest, and consumer organic inputs (“wastes”) into “feedstock” for anaerobic digesters to make methane which can power vehicles, heat our spaces, and process our goods. Marie Audet and I believe we can do better.
On the Dairy Farming Crisis
Farming is an important part of Vermont’s economy and our traditional way of life. People farm because they love the land and love their animals. Farming is difficult. Dairy farming has become even more difficult.
Vermont farms need to export their products in order to succeed. U.S. dairies, including Vermont’s, are being hurt by our federally self-inflicted trade war with all our important export markets. Mexico was a big and growing market for our dairy products. We had made important inroads into the Chinese market, where Chinese consumers had become concerned with local dairy contamination. Australia and New Zealand have happily replaced the U.S. there. The U.S. Congress must reassert its traditional role in oversight of trade agreements.
Vermont state government will have little or no impact on macro dairy pricing, barring what no one wants, state taxpayer-funded subsidies.
There are many people around the world that need good nutrition, and Vermont dairy products can help nourish them. Vermont co-ops and value-added producers have brought important dairy-based products to market that are more shelf-stable and can be exported to other markets. Products like a variety of cheeses, dried milk and milk proteins, baby formula ingredients, and nutritional supplements present growing opportunities for Vermont dairy.
Some dairy farmers have converted to organic practices and found new markets. Production in that sector has caught up with demand. A switch to organics is still a calculated financial risk, as the bulk of U.S. consumers have yet to show they are willing to regularly pay the premiums necessary to support organic practices.
Vermont state government still can and must help farmers. When planning our state’s water quality initiatives (see next article), the state must help farmers to contain nutrients on their farm fields and build good soil, thus reducing the cost of fertilizing and reducing nutrient erosion into our waters. These will be cost effective investments, investments in improving technologies and practices. We can help farmers while helping improve the waters of the state. Marie Audet and I believe we can do better.
Are Vermonters getting the education they need to prepare them for our changing world? To me, that is the core issue. The challenge is different and more difficult for our rural schools, so we need to be creative and flexible with education spending.
I have no intention of cutting school spending. I would, however, like to see a refocusing of resources on evolving educational priorities. These include early childhood education, skilled trade and professional training (for grades 7-12 and for adults seeking job retraining), and after-school programs. In some cases, particularly early childhood programs, we may actually need to increase spending on teachers and staff to attract enough qualified people to these professions.
There has been much discussion about changes to how we fund education spending. The property tax is a regressive tax, and while a majority of Vermonters qualify for “income sensitivity,” that program is only sensitive to lower income, not to higher incomes. As the mission of our schools expands to include important community services, such as medical and mental health, hunger and nutrition, student safety, drug and alcohol intervention, etc., I believe the funding sources should expand beyond the property tax.
While it would be a net-zero change in spending, I believe we should identify and quantify the services schools must provide that go beyond a traditional education mission. Those costs should be funded through the General Fund rather than the property tax. This would have the effect of lowering property taxes for all and increasing income taxes for a few. I believe it would be an equitable way to fund these important costs. I do not support moving all school funding to the income tax.
Our K-12 student population is in decline, and that has the effect of raising costs on a per-pupil basis. I would caution against significant downsizing of our school systems, because I strongly believe Vermont is nearing a time of new growth, and I hope and expect that will lead to population increases. Growth will come with increasing prosperity. Prosperity will come with increased affordability, increased housing, and increased access to good jobs close to home.
Our government created the law that we call Act 46. A lot of hard-working, smart people made their best attempt at addressing growing concerns about education costs and equity. We should carefully monitor the effects that Act 46 is creating, those intended and those unintended. It is the responsibility of government to make changes and adjustments to the law if evidence suggests changes are needed.
On Health Care & Housing
Good housing - affordable, energy-efficient, conveniently located homes – is still the cornerstone of the “American Dream.” Supply is tight in Chittenden County, and any shortage there puts price pressure in nearby rural communities like Addison and Franklin County. The inventory of homes on the market is good, but prices are higher, and after-sale energy upgrades can add significantly to buyers’ costs. Rental vacancy rates are very low.
Home ownership has become more expensive (mortgage, taxes, insurance), interest rates are starting to climb, and energy costs still make up a larger part of people’s household budgets. First-time home-buyers are struggling with higher down payment requirements.
“A good job close to home” is the phrase I coined to encapsulate what all of us strive for. Housing must be seen in context with employment – can the jobs sustain home ownership? Is it necessary to make a time-consuming, expensive commute? Can folks live and work in the same community?
Vermont does a good job with a variety of programs for housing. The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board is a professional organization that works collaboratively with local housing agencies to overcome barriers to affordable housing development. A recent $30 million VHCB bond will help underwrite capital costs to lower the initial cost of new projects. The funds are administered by Vermont Housing Finance Agency, another great Vermont organization that creatively uses public/private partnerships and tax credits to encourage and support home ownership and homebuilding. Several agencies in Addison County participate in housing – from the worst-case scenario of homelessness, to development of rental properties and affordable homes. All these initiatives deserve continued public support and funding.
I believe a good home, close to a good job, with adequate public transportation and robust telecommunications are inseparable parts of sustaining vibrant, affordable communities.
I believe Vermont has a good health care system. What we all struggle with is the cost of health insurance and access to health care providers. What we all want is a more affordable and more reliable structure.
When I served in the Vermont House, state government pursued a plan for a “single payer” health system. I supported that effort, but Vermont was not able to create a plan that would work just in our state. We realized some benefits, but we were unable to fulfill the promises.
A federal solution would be best, but Congress continues to frustrate and disappoint. In Vermont, the options are limited. We have discouraged most insurers, so we are in a difficult position to resist large annual increases from Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Vermonters could allocate more tax revenue to health care programs – existing ones like Medicaid and Dr. Dinosaur, and/or new proposals like “universal primary care.” The question is one of funding. Like my position on housing, I favor making health care more affordable – controlling costs where we can, and prioritizing funds to the most cost-effective programs that bridge the gap of affordability. Doing so will require funding decisions that may be difficult for ordinary taxpayers.