PFAS, slew of other agriculture-related bills on the move on Beacon Hill

Bills filed by state Sen. Jo Comerford, left, and Rep. Natalie Blais, along with Rep. Mindy Domb (not pictured) were recently advanced by the Joint Committee on Agriculture.

Bills filed by state Sen. Jo Comerford, left, and Rep. Natalie Blais, along with Rep. Mindy Domb (not pictured) were recently advanced by the Joint Committee on Agriculture. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 02-02-2024 5:00 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Prohibiting PFAS from consumer products sold in Massachusetts remains an objective for Sen. Jo Comerford, who sees a recently advanced legislative bill to protect soil and farms from such contamination as an important first step to “turning off the tap.”

After meeting with numerous farmers and agricultural experts, Comerford, D-Northampton, and Rep. Paul Schmid III, D-Westport, who co-chair the Joint Committee on Agriculture, filed H.101 and S.39, “An act protecting our soil and farms from PFAS contamination.”

It was among nine bills that received favorable recommendations from the committee on Jan. 19 and that Comerford said will “support and strengthen the commonwealth’s farms, farmers, fisheries and food systems.” One of those other bills is designed to strengthen local food systems by creating a program to support first-time farmers, among other initiatives.

The PFAS bill, Comerford said, would limit the chemical’s presence in soils and food, provide liability protections for farmers who often have used fertilizer containing treated wastewater, and encourage them to seek alternatives going forward.

“This sets up a framework to do it right and must be part of turning off the tap,” Comerford said, adding, “I believe that the stakes are really high to get it right.”

The bill protects farmers from civil liability and indemnifies them; sets up a relief fund to help farmers access alternatives; mandates testing of sewage sludge, or biosolids, to understand how prevalent PFAS is in crops; and puts warning labels on products containing PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), also called “forever chemicals.” But the bill doesn’t require fertilizer, mulch and other products associated with farming to be tested.

Last spring, during testimony, some farmers were concerned about Massachusetts passing legislation similar to Maine, which forced the closure of dairy farms and impacted more than 50 farms in that state.

“This legislation addresses critical issues facing the agricultural industry in the fight against PFAS contamination and ensures the state’s cooperation and intervention in the most serious of circumstances,” Schmid said.

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The bill now heads to the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Next Generation Farmers Fund

A bill being revived, previously filed in partnership with Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Deerfield, is S.42, “An act strengthening local food systems.” This would create a program to support first-time farmers with hands-on training and information about agricultural practices that mitigate climate change, as well as preserve farmland.

All the elements of what Comerford said was “a really intuitive bill” are now back after being part of an economic development bond bill that passed the Senate but didn’t get signed into law in 2022.

The Next Generation Farmers Fund would set aside $3 million annually as grants to the state’s higher education institutions, vocational technical schools or community-based organizations, either with existing programs for providing workforce development training to first-time farmers or the capacity to create such programs. Priority would be given to programs serving a high percentage of minority or low-income students or people with disabilities. These programs would also provide instruction on how to protect the environment through best practices.

“This bill makes a number of critical reforms to state law to support farms and farmers, including providing hands-on training to new farmers, ensuring that farmland is taxed as farmland, and creating other initiatives to help farmers remain competitive and viable,” Comerford said.

Comerford said she has been struck by the challenges some farmers have in succession planning, especially if their children don’t have interest in being farmers.

“It’s hard to take over a farm,” Comerford said. “This can create a pipeline of next farmers.”

The bill also calls for a full-time food system coordinator and development of a circuit rider program to provide on-site guidance to farmers, while also requiring fair market value to be provided to farmers placing their properties in the state’s Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program, giving greater incentive to participate.

Climate change bill

A bill filed by Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, H.91, “An act addressing the impact of climate change on farms and fisheries,” is also moving ahead.

Under this, a new grant program, to be known as the Agriculture and Fishery Vulnerability Preparedness Grant Fund, would support farms and fisheries in initiating and planning for climate change adaptation and resiliency. This is modeled after the state’s Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program

“Our farms are clearly on the front lines of vulnerability to the extreme effects of climate change and in particular the weather,” Domb said. “Providing them with the support to navigate the impacts of climate change is vital in order to sustain food and nutrition security, protect livelihoods and stabilize ecosystem health.”

The Agriculture Committee also favorably advanced bills to create an animal advisory board to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, the Farm Technology Review Commission and a cranberry wetland mitigation bank, as well as to develop buffer zones on land under the APR program. Other bills moving on relate to agricultural crop and property destruction, and protecting the viability of farms.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.