When Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee put pen to paper and signed the Agriculture and Seafood Act into law on April 26 – Rhode Island Agriculture Day – he changed the way the R.I. Department of Environmental Management operates.
No longer will it act exclusively as a regulatory agency; now it can be an economic supporter of agriculture as well.
The new act increases DEM’s ability to assist in marketing and outreach for local agriculture and seafood products. It also establishes a state Food and Nutrition Policy Advisory Council and allows the state Division of Agriculture, part of the DEM, to begin a grant program for farmers and organizations that support the state’s agricultural and commercial-fishing industries.
“It’s something the Department of Environmental Management had asked me to sponsor in the House,” said Rep. Deborah L. Ruggiero, D-Jamestown. “I’m a big proponent of agriculture and the fishing industry.”
There are more than 1,200 farms in the state and the industry is worth $1.7 billion, according to the “Economic Impact Study for Rhode Island Green-Related Industries,” issued in April. In all, agriculture provides 12,300 jobs.
The premise of the new law is simple; agriculture plays a key role in the state’s outdoor economy. And the state “plays a really big role in supporting local food production,” Ruggiero said.
Noah Fulmer, executive director of nonprofit Farm Fresh Rhode Island, said “One of the key parts of the bill was allowing DEM to retain some of the funds that it raises through permitting programs that it has in place. Agriculture has a lot of licenses and fees that are involved but DEM hasn’t been able to keep that money outside of the general fund.”
Fulmer said DEM collects several million dollars in fees each year and the state has advocated using those funds to assist the industry by establishing a grant program.