Climate-Smart Agriculture: How New England Led in the 2022 Legislative Session
2022 marks my fourth year working at American Farmland Trust. When I started as the Connecticut Working Lands Alliance Director in 2018, I knew that large policy reforms would take time, patience, and perseverance. From my first day on the job where erratic spring weather patterns were making it hard for farmers to plan, it was clear that climate change was no longer a distant problem that impacted our food system. Large public investments and new programs were needed if, as a region, we are going to support farmers in implementing practices that would help them combat climate change. Thus began our efforts to pass historic legislation in CT that would move the needle for farmers to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
It’s hard to identify an exact moment that was the catalyst in advancing a large climate-smart agriculture policy in CT. For me, the moment happened on a cool fall morning in 2019. I was sitting on my couch, sipping my morning coffee, and listening to CT Public Radio when I heard that Governor Lamont was holding a Press Conference in Hartford with Environmental Advocates to sign Executive Order Number 3. It became clear that WLA needed to be at the table as the State looked to update its Climate Action plan. In a frenzy, I threw on a suit and called the Governor’s Office to configure how WLA could be included in the Press Conference. Our friends at the Governor’s Office were very helpful and ensured we were on the list of people who could attend the conference. It was here that the Chair of the Governor’s Council on Climate Change, Commissioner Katie Dykes from the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection agreed to create an Agriculture/Soils Working Group that would aid in the state’s climate plan update.
Throughout the pandemic, the Agriculture/Soils Working Group met and drafted a report that made over a hundred recommendations for how the state’s agricultural community could play a key role in the state’s efforts to meet its carbon reduction goals. Some of the recommendations, like helping farmers purchase the equipment needed to implement climate-smart agricultural practices, made it into the Governor’s Council on Climate Change: Phase 1 Report: Near-Term Actions.
Simultaneously, CT farmers continued to work tirelessly to provide local food to residents as supply chains broke across the nation. It was during this time that the need to invest in local food systems and pass policies that support farm viability became clear to lawmakers and the general public. Meanwhile, Congress passed two huge pieces of legislation (the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act) that invested billions of dollars into the country’s efforts to bounce back from the dramatic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Utilizing this moment of public awareness and the influx in available funding, WLA worked with the CT General Assembly to introduce S.B. 243- An Act Concerning Climate-Smart Agriculture and advocated for state funds to support farmers in implementing climate-smart agriculture and forestry practices. Because of our continued efforts over the past four years to educate lawmakers, the Governor’s Office, and State officials about the promise and benefits of healthy soil practices and climate-smart agriculture, the CT legislature made a historic $14 million investment to help farmers who want to transition to climate-smart agricultural practices. You can read more about this win in our press release here.
Connecticut was not alone during the 2022 legislative session in making historic investments toward improving farmland soils and climate-smart agricultural practices. The following outlines what happened in other New England states.
For producers in Maine, PFAS or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances have brought unprecedented challenges as contamination has been discovered in their water, soil, and crops. For decades, the application on farmland of residuals from wastewater treatment facilities and industrial sources (also called sludge or biosolids) was marketed to producers in Maine and across the country as an affordable way to increase the nutrients within the soil. Unfortunately, the application of residuals that happened on farms decades ago can still be detected and cause varying levels of contamination today. Maine is one of the first states to take a comprehensive approach to investigating PFAS contamination, and over the next three years, more than 700 sites will be prioritized by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection for testing and investigation. Many farms have also begun proactively testing their water and soil and have been transparent about their findings. But this contamination has led to significant financial challenges for some of the impacted farmers.
In response to the need for financial support for farmers, the Maine State Legislature passed two critical safety net provisions a $60 million farmer support fund established through the supplemental budget to support impacted farms with income replacement, health monitoring, business pivots, and relocation services; and LD 1911, a first in the nation ban on the land application of PFAS-contaminated sewer sludge and compost made from sludge to prevent future farmlands from being contaminated with PFAS. For a full overview of the legislative session in Maine, check out Maine Farmland Trust’s legislative update here.
The Massachusetts legislative session started on January 1, 2021, and lasts two years. In late 2021, the MA State Legislature and Governor Charlie Baker recognized that soil health is a form of Environmental Infrastructure in the state’s $4 billion ARPA budget.
Vermont also made historic investments in soil health this session. The FY 2023 budget included $1 million for the development of the state’s Ecosystem Services program. The related Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) Working Group was established in 2019 and is charged to present a legislative proposal that outlines how the state can improve soil health, enhance crop resilience, increase carbon storage and stormwater storage capacity, and reduce agricultural runoff through either modifying existing incentives or creating a new, so-called PES program. The State Budget also includes $4.6 million in American Rescue Act Plan (ARPA) funding to the VT Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets for climate mitigation. This funding will be used to provide farms in Vermont with financial assistance for the implementation of soil-based practices that improve soil quality and nutrient retention, increase crop production, minimize erosion potential, and reduce agricultural waste discharges. For more information on policy wins in Vermont read Rural Vermont’s legislative wrap-up here.
These wins across the region are just some of the first steps New England legislatures can take to ensure we are supporting our farmers in adapting to the impacts of extreme weather and helping our farmers join critical efforts to combat climate change. Working in fierce cooperation, I am confident that we can build off of these successes next legislative session by configuring new policies that will further support and encourage farmers to implement climate-smart agricultural practices.
The following individuals and organizations contributed to this blog: Samantha Levy from American Farmland Trust; Ellen Griswold from Maine Farmland Trust; Marty Dagoberto from NOFA/Mass and Caroline Gordon from Rural Vermont.