2023 New England Policy Wrap-Up:
Policy Wins for Farmers and Climate Were Abundant During 2023’s State Legislative Sessions
The 2023 growing season was by far one of the most challenging on record for many producers across the region. With the combination of orchard producers’ crop loss, late frosts in mid-May, fruit and vegetable farmers’ harvests being destroyed by torrential rains, flooding in July and August, and inflating land costs, New England’s agricultural sector faced many trials and tribulations this year.
Land prices soared. According to the 2023 National Agricultural Statistic Service Land Value Survey, the average value of farmland continues to rise across the country. New England states, including Connecticut ($14,200/ac), Massachusetts ($15,300/ac), and Rhode Island ($18,300/ac), feature some of the highest costs per acre in the country. The high cost of land creates barriers to entry for new and emerging farmers, especially for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) producers. It also leads to a high threat of land development, as many aging farmers are left without support for transitioning their land to new operators.
State legislatures across the region actively responded to these threats and other challenges like rising food costs and farmland in Maine being condemned due to PFAS contamination. New England legislatures worked tirelessly to keep local farmers in production and promote a more resilient food system, from continuing to support provisions that will increase state farmland protection to funding farmland access opportunities and creating emergency programs that support farmers impacted by PFAS contamination and climate-related disasters.
AFT’s New England policy work continues to be driven by our programs on the ground in the region. On-the-ground programming includes robust climate and agricultural viability efforts, where our team works directly with producers to implement soil health practices that build resiliency in the face of climate change.
AFT New England has a long-standing reputation for working with land trusts and state agencies on farmland protection efforts. We cannot advance sustainable agricultural policies without the help, and oftentimes leadership of our partners on the ground. We believe that the best policies are developed by coalitions and with diverse partnerships. As Terry Jones, former Chair of Working Lands Alliance, and recent New England Leopold Conservation Award winner, says, “fierce cooperation is essential to success.”
From Augusta to Hartford, American Farmland Trust is committed to conducting timely research and sharing the latest best practices, bringing together people and organizations, participating in coalitions, and leading the Working Lands Alliance in Connecticut, so we can advance policies in New England state legislatures that create a better agricultural future for all New Englanders.
Our New England Policy Team provides a brief update on policies and public comments that AFT supported over the past year as we reflect on the legislative victories that unfolded during the 2023 legislative sessions.
Special thanks to Joey Listro from the CT Farm to School Collaborative, Kim Stoner from CT NOFA, Amy Paterson from the CT Land Conservation Council, and Kip Kolesinskas, Co-Chair of WLA, for reviewing this section.
The Working Lands Alliance (WLA) as part of the Community Investment Act (CIA) Coalition, sent a letter to members of the 2023-2024 CT State Legislature that outlines the importance of protecting a fund that supports the state’s farmland protection, land conservation, historic properties preservation, affordable housing, and dairy sustainability efforts. CIA funding remains secure for the FY24-FY25 years thanks to the support of the administration and legislative champions.
Additionally, the CT Department of Agriculture (CT DoAg) Farmland Preservation Program regulations were made available for public comment for the first time since the early 1990’s. After review and revision by members of the CT Department of Agriculture’s Farmland Preservation Advisory Board, WLA submitted comments on the regulations, outlining ways the program could be strengthened. These new regulations will allow the state to further leverage federal funds, protect more farms through the Community Farms Preservation Program, and update ranking criteria that reflect current farm sizes and businesses. You can review WLA’s comments here.
Climate Smart Agriculture
CT DoAg worked with the CT General Assembly Environment Committee to propose legislation (HB 6725) to remove a $20,000 cap from the agency’s new Farmland Restoration and Climate Resiliency Grant Program. WLA advocated for the legislature to remove the word “federal” from the legislation so as not to limit how a farmer can pay for a project that implements climate-smart agricultural practices. Both legislative changes were passed by the CT General Assembly and signed by the Governor during the 2023 legislative session. You can read WLA’s full testimony here.
In early July, WLA sent a letter to Governor Lamont asking his administration to support a $7 million bond to replenish funding for the Farmland Restoration and Climate Resiliency Program by placing it on the Bond Commission Agenda, and the CT Bond Commission approved the request in October. In early December, CT DoAg opened the CT Farmland Restoration, Recovery, and Resiliency Grant.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
In the spring of 2023, CT DoAg finalized a report drafted by the Agency’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) board. The report (which can be found here) includes recommendations as to how the state of Connecticut can increase land access opportunities for historically marginalized producers. The report is available in both English and Spanish.
In 2022, AFT worked with an advisory board of state agricultural stakeholders (“Advisory Board”) to release a report entitled Smart Solar in Connecticut. AFT’s Advisory Board included farmers and representatives from the WLA Steering Committee. This report includes summaries from a statewide farmer survey, roundtables with state agency staff and solar developers, and expert input from AFT’s Project Advisory Committee. In addition, the report provides high-level recommendations for advancing Smart Solar in CT, as it focuses on farmland protection, market incentives, and cross-sector collaboration to advance dual-use/agrivoltaics on farmland. As a result, in the spring of 2023, WLA and Steering Committee members gave input on a procurement request for proposals released by the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). Here are WLA’s final comments submitted to DEEP.
In alignment with the recommendations outlined within the Solar Siting in Connecticut Report, WLA submitted H.B. 5608. This bill was introduced by Representative Doug Dubitsky (R-35th district) and passed during the 2023 legislative session. You can read the final legislative language here. This bill was introduced by Representative Doug Dubitsky (R-35th district) and passed during the 2023 legislative session. You can read the final legislative language here.
Additionally, in August 2023, CT DEEP announced they would hold a listening session and public comment period for the role of an agrivoltaics program. Both AFT and WLA drafted public comments and submitted them at the end of August. You can read more about DEEP’s proposed Agrivoltaic conditions here, as well as WLA’s comments.
WLA, with the help of the CT Farm to School Collaborative, submitted supportive testimony for H.B. 684 2 – An Act Concerning the Establishment of a Local Food for Schools Incentive Program and Expansion of the CT Grown for CT Kids Grant Program, which was introduced by the Connecticut General Assembly Education Committee. The bill passed the Education Committee and was combined with SB1 with funding allocated in the budget bill. The bill was championed by Representative Bobby Gibson (D-15) and Representative Jeff Currey (D-11).
WLA also provided testimony for conditional support of H.B. 6659 – An Act Concerning the State Budget for the Biennium Ending June 30, 2025, and Making Appropriations Therefore. We requested that the legislature acknowledge the need to expand funding levels at CT DoAg and asked for support of the following additions to the agency’s budget: 1) Funding the CT Grown for CT Kids Grants Program with an appropriation of $1 million annually and 2) Continued funding of $5 million annually for the Farmland Restoration and Climate Resiliency Grant Program.
Climate Disaster Relief
CT DoAg estimates that there were millions of dollars in losses by producers impacted by this season’s early frost and recent flooding. As a result, the CT State Legislature changed the language in the CT Farmland Restoration and Climate Resiliency bond, passed during the 2022 legislative session, to include funding for farmers impacted by climate disasters. This funding is now being allotted by the agency through CT DoAg’s Farmland Restoration, Repair and Resiliency Program.
Special thanks to Shelley Megquier from Maine Farmland Trust, Matt Cannon from Sierra Club-Maine Chapter, Matt Boucher from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, and Nancy Smith with Grow Smart Maine for reviewing this section.
Climate Smart Agriculture
The Healthy Soils Program was allotted $1 million in the FY25 budget and an additional $300,000 of continual funding. In 2021, the Maine legislature passed the Maine Healthy Soils Program bill, which created a hub for critical information, tools, and assistance to help more Maine farmers build soil health practices on their farms. In doing so, Maine has helped farmers realize the resilience, disaster mitigation, and economic benefits that healthy soils can provide. The program provides information to farmers on the following:
- Healthy soils land management practice
- Technical assistance services offered by agriculture support providers to help farmers use these practices
- Connections to other farmers already using these practices successfully
- Funding opportunities to support the use of these practices and more
Maine has also secured $1 million in funding for the Farmers Drought Relief Grant Program. The addition of funding in the next annual state budget for the Healthy Soils Program and the Farmers Drought Relief Grant Program could play a significant role in Maine’s climate goals. You can see AFT’s testimony supporting this budget allocation here and the final budget that includes these changes here.
To address inequitable land access opportunities for Maine’s Black, Indigenous, and other Farmers of Color, Senator Hickman (D-14th District) introduced LD 1274 – An Act to Increase Land Access for Historically Disadvantaged Populations. This piece of legislation would establish a Black Farmer Restoration Program within DACF to support Black farmers and encourage the growth of Black farmers in the field of agriculture through agricultural land grants. The bill also establishes the Farm Conservation Corps, which seeks to provide residents from historically marginalized groups ages 18-29 the academic, vocational, and social skills necessary to pursue long-term and productive careers in agriculture through apprenticeships. This bill copies language from the Justice for Black Farmers Act of 2023. It follows some of the recommendations outlined in the Land Access for Indigenous and African American Farmers in Maine report. This bill did not pass this session but was carried over to be considered again in the next legislative session. AFT submitted supportive testimony.
AFT submitted testimony on LD 1227 – An Act to Balance Renewable Energy Development with Natural and Working Lands Conservation. This bill is sponsored by Representative Pluecker (I-44th District). It seeks to establish a dual-use energy pilot program in Maine as well as the creation of a public database of permitted and constructed energy facilities. Both proposed actions were derived from recommendations within the Governor’s Energy Office (GEO) and the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s (DACF) Agriculture Solar Stakeholder groups final report. You can read AFT’s support for this legislation and the subsequent amendments here. This bill passed this session but was not funded on the special appropriations table and will be carried over into the 2024 legislative session.
The New England Policy team also provided testimony on LD 1559 – An Act to Promote Economic Reuse of Contaminated Land Through Clean Energy Development. This bill incentivizes the siting of solar on farmland that has PFAS-contaminated soils. You can read the bill language here and AFT’s testimony in support of this legislation here. The bill passed this session and was signed into law by Governor Mills in late June.
AFT supported LD 1881 – An Act Regarding Compensation Fees and Related Conservation Efforts to Protect Soils and Wildlife and Fisheries Habitat from Solar and Wind Energy Development and High-impact Electric Transmission Lines Under the Site Location of Development Laws. This bill requires that solar developers who site solar on high-value farmland pay into a mitigation fund. AFT submitted testimony on this bill that can be found here. LD 1881 passed and was signed into law by Governor Mills in late July. The bill provides one-time General Fund appropriations to DACF of $97,722 in fiscal year 2023-24 and $132,537 in fiscal year 2024-25 for one limit-period Environmental Licensing Supervisor position and associated costs. This position ends June 7, 2025. In October, DACF requested stakeholder input before initiating formal rulemaking to shape implementation of LD 1881. Comments submitted by AFT in collaboration with Maine Farmland Trust can be found here.
The PFAS Fund Advisory Committee, established in October 2022, has been tasked with making recommendations to DACF regarding the administration of the Fund to Address PFAS Contamination. A draft of the Committee’s recommendations is available in the Plan for the Administration of the Fund to Address PFAS Contamination. The $60 million fund will be used for a variety of purposes, including 1) Farmer assistance such as investments in equipment, facilities, infrastructure, buying/selling contaminated land, etc.; 2) Health services to farmers such as blood testing, health monitoring, etc.; and 3) Research including soil and water remediation systems, uptake of different crops, livestock systems, thresholds for food products, etc.
In mid-November, the Maine Joint Standing Committee on Housing heard testimony that would update the State’s Growth Management Program Laws. AFT submitted testimony in support of LD 1976 – An Act to Update the Growth Management Program. This comprehensive update to Title 30-A, Chapter 187, the current Growth Management Law, will modernize Maine’s municipal planning efforts to combat climate change and promote smart growth while incorporating more equitable community input into the planning process.
Special Thanks to Rebecca Miller from MA Food System Collaborative, Dago Driggs, formerly of NOFA/Mass, and Caro Roszell of American Farmland Trust.
Please note that Massachusetts is in the middle of a two-year legislative session that will end on December 31st, 2024. The update below was drafted in December 2023.
In December 2023, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) released a 200-page statewide Farmland Action Plan. The plan provides a long-term strategic vision for the Commonwealth’s farmland needs and goals. The plan outlines how Massachusetts can increase farmland protection efforts, create additional farmland access opportunities, promote food security, and link farmland to the state’s efforts in climate resiliency and environmental justice. AFT was a consultant on this plan. To help with implementation, MDAR will hire a Plan Coordinator.
In early 2023, the MA State Legislature re-introduced the Uniform Partition for Heirs Property Rights Act. Both the MA House (H.1744) and Senate (SD.2816) have introduced the bill. AFT is actively participating in the UPHPA Coalition, which is being led by the Initiative on Land, Housing, and Property Rights at Boston College Law School. The coalition consists of land trusts, academics, realtors, non-profit advocates, representatives, and many other affordable housing and conservation interest groups. There was a hearing on this bill on October 31st. AFT submitted testimony on this bill, which you can read here.
Senator Jo Comerford (D-Hampshire, Franklin, and Worcester) and Representative Paul Schmid (D-8th Bristol) introduced a Proposal for a Legislative Amendment to the Constitution Relative to Agricultural and Horticultural Lands, S.13 and H.41, respectfully. If passed, this bill would require the state to remove the 5-acreage minimum cap on MA’s current use program, also called Chapter 61 A. This effort will require the state to pass a constitutional amendment. This means that two separately elected legislatures must vote in favor of this proposal. It must then appear as a ballot measure before being signed into law by the Governor. AFT’s New England Policy Manager, Chelsea Gazillo, and New England Soil Health Manager, Caro Roszell, submitted testimony, which can be read here.
American Farmland Trust, NOFA/Mass, Regenerative Design Group, and a broader coalition of soil advocates commend the Massachusetts State Legislature and Governor Maura Healey for the passage of the FY2024 State Budget and the passage of the $200 million Supplemental Budget in July. The FY2024 budget, signed by Governor Healey on August 9, 2023, includes $1.02 million to support healthy soil practices on farmland and other critical natural lands. The supplemental budget, signed by the Governor on August 2, 2023, included $20 million in funding to support farmers whose operations were impacted by climate-related disasters. This critical funding comes at a time when the climate crisis is severely impacting farms across the Commonwealth. With these appropriations, state leaders have recognized that farmers, land managers, and the lands they steward play a crucial role in mitigating threats from climate change. Read AFT’s full Press Release here.
In April 2023, Governor Healey’s Administration announced the convening of a Commission on Energy Siting and Permitting Reform. The Commission includes representation from the agricultural sector. Based on AFT’s prior work and leadership on Smart Solar, Governor Healey appointed Nathan L’Etoile, AFT’s National Farm Viability Managing Director, to represent agriculture on the Commission to Accelerate Siting and Permitting of Clean Energy Infrastructure.
Senator Jo Comerford (D-Hampshire, Franklin, and Worcester) and Representative Paul Schmid (D-8th Bristol) introduced S.39 – An Act Protecting our Soil and Farms from PFAS Contamination. This bill will support a safety net for farmers impacted by PFAS contamination, including liability relief if contamination impacts the farm business, financial relief to shield farmers from the conveyance or rollback of taxes associated with MA’s current use law (Chapter 61A), and technical assistance and education to assist farmers in adapting new practices. AFT submitted testimony on this bill, which can be found here.
Climate Disaster Relief
MDAR has reported that at least 347 farms were severely impacted by the 2023 summer floods. In response, Governor Healey and the MA state legislature allocated $20 million in the State’s FY24 Supplement budget to MDAR, establishing a Climate Disaster Relief Program. The Supplemental Budget was signed by Governor Healey on August 2nd. MDAR’s Natural Disaster Recovery Program for Agriculture deadline for submissions was on September 29th, 2023. The Grant Awardees were announced on December 11th, 2023. To learn more, please visit the Governor Healy Administration Press Release here.
To provide immediate relief to farmers, Governor Healy’s Administration, Congressman Jim McGovern, the legislature, MA Buy Local chapters, and the philanthropic community raised money for the MA Farm Resiliency Fund, hosted by United Way. The fund raised about $3 million. Those mentioned seek to make the fund available annually to producers impacted by weather-related events.
Special thanks to Bill Fosher from American Farmland Trust for reviewing this section.
New Hampshire Food System Alliance (NHFA) led a team of farmland preservation experts to re-launch and statutorily fix the NH Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food’s Agricultural Land Preservation (ALP) Program. The team, which included AFT, Southeast Land Trust (SELT), New Hampshire Land Trust Coalition, and New Hampshire Department of Agriculture and Markets, supported HB 221. This bill was sponsored by Representative Bixby (D-13th District), Representative Caplan (D-8th District), and Representative Aron (R-4th District) and updates the ALP Statute to allow land trusts to utilize funds from the Department of Agriculture’s ALP Program. m. This bill was sponsored by Representative Bixby (D-13th District), Representative Caplan (D-8th District), and Representative Aron (R-4th District). It updates the ALP Statute to allow land trusts to utilize funds from the Department of Agriculture’s ALP Program.
The passage of HB 221 adapted the ALP program to leverage more funds through Easement, alongside other funding sources, to increase the amount of funding available for farmland protection in NH. The bill also updated the ALP Committee, which will review applications submitted through the ALP program, to include a member of the land trust community. In the spring of 2023, AFT orally testified to the New Hampshire State Legislature in support of this bill. The bill was approved by the legislature and signed into law by Governor Sununu on August 8, 2023. To learn more about HB 221, please read the one-pager put together by NHFA here.
Climate Disaster Relief
The University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension Diary Specialist Sarah Allen, alongside Forage Specialist Carl Majewski, will present a report on the economic impacts to livestock producers caused by the exceptionally rainy summer of 2023 to key legislators during the 2024 legislative session. This presentation will help inform future legislative action taken to support farmers impacted by extreme weather events, including the potential establishment of a climate disaster relief fund. AFT provided a letter outlining the experience of livestock producers working with Bill Fosher, our Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) Conservation Planner. Many producers sustained substantial economic losses ranging from 15 to 50 percent due to increased feed costs and lost revenue from hay that could not be harvested or sold. You can read AFT’s letter of support here.
Special thanks to Kate Sayles from the RI Land Trust Council and Diane Lynch from the RI Food Policy Council for contributing to this section.
AFT worked with the RI Food Policy Council and the RI Land Trust Council to submit a letter to Governor McKee asking the state to include $5 million for RI’s Farmland Protection and Farmland Access Program in the FY 2024 budget. You can read AFT’s full letter here. While the initial funding request was originally not included in the Governor’s Budget, the legislature included the request in their FY24 budget proposal.
Senator DiPalma (D-12th District) and Representative McGaw (D-71st District) sponsored resolutions to appropriate $5 million for the Department of Environmental Management’s Agricultural Lands Preservation Program. AFT submitted testimony to both the RI State Legislature’s House Finance Committee and the Senator Finance Committee in full support of the resolutions. In June 2023, the legislature passed an FY24 budget that included $2.5 million in general funds for the ALP program. Governor McKee signed the budget into law on June 16, 2023. In June 2023, the legislature passed an FY24 budget that included $2.5 million in general funds for the ALP program. Governor McKee signed the budget into law on June 16, 2023.
At the time of publication, the RI Food Policy Council and the RI Land Trust Council are actively working to secure $5 million in the 2025 Green Bond to fund the Agricultural Land Preservation Program and Farmland Access Program.
Special thanks to Shane Rogers of Seeding Power Vermont and Alissa White from American Farmland Trust for reviewing this section.
Through Seeding Power Vermont, AFT submitted testimony in support of a request to fund the Land Access and Opportunity Board (LAOB) at $1.2 million annually for the next four years. LAOB is housed at the VT Housing and Conservation Board for administrative purposes. The legislature, alongside Governor Scott and AFT, joined over 60 individuals and 70 organizations, businesses, and farms in submitting testimony.
Chelsea Gazillo, working as AFT New England Policy Manager, was an original member of Seeding Power Vermont and worked to draft this one-pager in support of H.273, the legislation that created the LAOB. LAOB released an initial Sunrise report to the VT State Legislature outlining the need to address inequities in land access and housing opportunities in the state. Within the report, LAOB recommended the following:
- An appropriation of $1.2 million in FY24 to continue its work under Act 182, which acknowledges structural racism and wealth disparities by creating opportunities to improve access to woodlands, farmland, and land and home ownership for historically marginalized or disadvantaged Vermont residents.
- The recommended appropriations will support staffing and operations, ongoing support from legal entities, and the implementation of duties in all areas of the mandate under Act 182.
- LOAB’s powers and duties are not legally controversial.
The full report can be found here.
Climate Disaster Relief
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (VAAFM) estimates that the mid-May frost impacted nearly 50 percent of all fruit buds in the state. Additionally, VAAFM estimated that millions of dollars of crops were lost because of flooding in mid-July. Many non-profit organizations have stepped up and created fundraisers to support farmers who were impacted. For a full list of resources, please click here.
On July 21st, Governor Phil Scott announced $20 million in Emergency Gap Funding for businesses impacted by severe flooding. $1 million of this funding was set specifically to support agricultural operations. Additionally, USDA-NRCS in VT allocated $4 million to disaster relief programs.
This wrap-up is a brief overview of some of the policy advocacy efforts that progressed through the New England State Legislature this past session – for more information regarding a specific state, please visit the following organizations’ websites: