State puts premises ID plan on hold

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(Host) The Agency of Agriculture has postponed a controversial proposal that would require all farms with livestock to register with the government. Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr says he put the plan on hold because of concerns that farmers’ privacy could not be protected.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The idea behind the registration program was to give animal health experts the ability to track down and eliminate diseases such as avian influenza. But many farmers, especially smaller producers, saw it as an unwarranted intrusion into their lives.

State Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr says he learned last week from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the farmers’ information could be made public.

(Kerr) “For the first time USDA said, No, we can’t guarantee absolute confidentiality of any information that’s sent from a state to the federal database.”

(Dillon) Kerr says a USDA lawyer told him that the records could be released under the federal Freedom of Information Act. He says he can no long assure farmers that their personal data – such as their address, and the type and number of animals – could be kept confidential.

(Kerr) “Because I have made a promise it’s an ethical matter for me. I can’t continue to make that promise.”

(Dillon) The news was welcomed by a group of farmers protesting at the Statehouse. Allen LePage is a vegetable grower from Barre Town.

(LePage) “I think it’s a good thing. I’m a little amazed that it took them so many months to figure it out, that it was a little outrageous to most people. And it took so much trouble and so many hearings to hear that people aren’t willing to do this.”

(Dillon) The protest was aimed at state agriculture policy. LePage and others say the state is focused too much on large dairy farms, and not enough on the local, small-scale food production. Michael Colby is a horse logger and activist from Worcester.

(Colby) “It doesn’t take a lot of common sense to realize that Vermont cannot compete with the factory farmers in the West and the factory farms in the Midwest. And it’s time for us, the people and the state, to get behind small producers and small farmers and see agriculture in this state thrive once again.”

(Dillon) The state recently stepped in with an $8 million payment plan to help struggling dairy farmers. But Agriculture Secretary Kerr says the state has supported smaller farmers through “buy-local” and other promotion programs.

(Kerr) “The buy-local program, which we created three and a half years ago when we came here, is clearly geared to every farmer, but clearly benefits the non-dairy farmer the most.”

(Dillon) The Agriculture Secretary says he’ll continue with hearings this week on the farm registration program. He says the effort now is to educate farmers about ways to keep their farms secure and disease-free. About 300 farms have voluntarily signed up for the registration plan. And Kerr says they can now take steps to remove themselves from the government database.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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