DOAG: LEGISLATIVE WRAP-UP



June 20, 2018

LEGISLATIVE WRAP-UP

Jason Bowsza, Chief of Staff, Commissioner’s Office

At midnight on May 9, 2018, the short session of the Connecticut General Assembly came to a close. In even-numbered years, the regular legislative sessions begin in February and end in May—but the shorter term does not mean that there is less work to be done, only that there is less time to do it.

Nearly 300 bills passed both chambers of the General Assembly in concurrence and were sent to the governor for his signature.  Some of those bills will have an impact on farming and agriculture. 

Throughout the session, the Department of Agriculture (DoAg) tracked more than 120 bills, introduced legislation of our own, and advocated for policies that will be beneficial to the agriculture community in Connecticut—a community that contributes more than $4 billion per year to the state’s economy, according to the most recent economic impact study completed by the University of Connecticut.

DoAg successfully passed three legislative concepts.  The first two concepts were included in House Bill 5360, An Act Concerning Revisions to Certain Environmental Quality and Conservation Programs of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

The 2014 Farm Bill did away with the previous federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP) and created in its place the Agricultural Lands Easement Program (ACEP).  Existing Connecticut statute specifically referenced FRPP. 

Because Connecticut statutes didn’t align with ACEP, Connecticut was at risk of missing out on federally reimbursed dollars for farmland preservation, an omission that would result in a loss of more than $12.5 million. House Bill 5360 corrected Connecticut statute language to maintain DoAg’s ability to recapture federal funding for reimbursement of preserved agricultural lands. 

Also under House Bill 5360, DoAg successfully advocated for an expansion of the buy/protect/sell program, allowing DoAg to partner with nonprofits and municipalities by buying farmland from farmers, selling it in fee simple to a partnering nonprofit or municipality, and then immediately buying back the development rights to the property, potentially in partnership with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

The third concept that secured passage by DoAg was Senate Bill 106, An Act Concerning the Sale of “Connecticut Grown” Products. In this bill DoAg successfully sought to extend the same farm-of-origin disclosure requirements required of farmers at local farmers’ markets to distributors who sell to schools. 

The intent was to provide school districts in Connecticut seeking to support local agriculture through their procurement process some confirmation that products being sold and represented by distributors as “Connecticut Grown” are, in fact, grown in Connecticut. 

It’s unfair to local producers to be in competition with out-of-state producers who claim to be producing in Connecticut, but are not actually doing so. 

The end result is that if a distributor is selling to a school district product claimed to have been grown in Connecticut, that  distributor must disclose specifically where that product was grown.

The budget, which was passed with overwhelming bipartisanship in both chambers on the last day of the session, also brought good news for agriculture.  Included in that budget was an additional $1 million for the Agriculture Sustainability Account, which provides support payments to dairy farmers when the cost of production exceeds the price of milk. 

This is a particularly timely and meaningful support program because of extremely depressed milk prices over the last several months.  Additionally, Governor Dannel P. Malloy has restored the funding that had been swept from this account, injecting critical assistance that will help keep dairy farm families in business. 

On May 29, 2018, with about 40 dairy farmers and agriculture stakeholders in attendance, Governor Malloy visited Cushman Farms in Franklin to make the announcement. 

This type of investment in producers benefits the greater agricultural community because, in most cases, it is immediately reinvested into things like feed and equipment.

There were many more bills introduced by advocates, stakeholders and legislative partners that will have an impact on the agricultural community in Connecticut. 

An additional benefit to farmers in Connecticut is House Bill 5534, An Act Concerning the Classification of Farm Land, which requires tax assessors to approve applications to classify any land that meets the farm land criteria under Public Act 490 as farm land. 

Specifically, assessors may not refuse to classify a portion of land as farm land on account of municipal zoning regulations establishing minimum acreage requirements for residential or agricultural parcels.

There were several proposals this session that would have allowed, in some way, for the cultivation of cannabis in Connecticut, a policy that DoAg supports with a number of conditions—specifically that it is considered an agricultural product, that it is appropriately regulated and necessary funding is in place to support a regulatory program, and that it comports with federal law.  Under the 2014 Farm Bill, state departments of agriculture and land grant universities can implement pilot programs for market research purposes, not for commercial sales production. 

There remains much work to do to provide opportunities for the diversification and continued growth of agriculture in Connecticut.  We need to advocate for policies that allow for continued access to high-quality farmland; that allow for expansion of sales opportunities for farm wineries, farm breweries, and farm distilleries; that encourage market-access opportunities for new and beginning farmers; that encourage and assist with farm transition planning; and so many more issues.