MONTPELIER — Vermont lawmakers are working on legislation that aims to bolster Vermont’s economy while retaining the hallmarks of its rural landscape.
The main focus in both the House and Senate agriculture committees so far this session has been the Working Lands Enterprise Bill, which seeks to bolster the agriculture, forestry and value-added food processing business sectors in the state.
The bill would establish a board to oversee the Working Lands Enterprise Fund, which would offer grants and loans that would promote entrepreneurship within the fields of agriculture and forestry.
“The bill seeks to revitalize both existing agriculture and emerging agriculture,” said Sen. Harold Giard, D-Bridport, who sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, a co-sponsor of the Working Lands bill in the House, said a unique aspect of the bill is that it draws forestry into the fold; in the past, forestry legislation has always fallen into a separate category.
“We’re getting a lot of support,” said Stevens, who added that the committees have been focused largely on hearing testimony on the bill.
The bill calls for $3 million in the fund in the first year, ramping up to $15 million a few years later.
Stevens said it’s not yet clear where the funding the bill requires would come from, but the need for the bill is clear. After the committees have hammered out the bill’s specifics, he said, talk will turn to funding concerns.
A primary goal in crafting the bill, he said, is making sure it specifically targets those areas that need additional investment to move forward, building on the findings of the 2011 Farm to Plate Strategic Plan.
The bill before the House Agriculture Committee states: “The farm to plate report identified a gap in the investment arena for working lands enterprises. Notably, there is a lack of public investment, particularly from the state, in this area.”
This, said Stevens, doesn’t mean that the bill would create a whole new board and a whole new fund. He said the current focus is on finding areas where agriculture and forestry services and resources are being duplicated on the state level, and streamlining them under the umbrella of this new bill.
“The state of Vermont has recognized the need to better coordinate economic development services and investments, as well as the need to assist entrepreneurs with navigating the regulatory process,” the bill states.
Stevens said Rep. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury, has also been a fixture at the committee’s hearings so far in his role as a member of the Commerce and Economic Development Committee.
“It isn’t our intent to say, ‘We’re the government — we’re here to help,’” Stevens said. “We’re working to take stock of the needs that the private sector isn’t willing to do — things that, but for those actions, the industry might perish.”
Rep. Harvey Smith, though not on the Agriculture Committee this session, is still following the bill closely as a farmer himself. The New Haven Republican said he hopes to see careful scrutiny of the bill to include the most important issues at hand.
“There really is strong support from a lot of people — there’s a desire to buy local, to know where your food is grown and that it was raised humanely,” Smith said. “We need to continue down that road, and to put in place some of the things that will help us get there.”
The Working Lands bill also broaches the topic of Irene, stating that investing in Vermont’s agriculture and forestry industries is crucial to the rebuilding process.
“Vermont has experienced a major disaster with Tropical Storm Irene this past year,” reads the bill. “Now is the time to build resiliency and focus on our strengths, such as our working lands economy and our small businesses.”
Smith cautioned against rushing to send the bill to the floor, as he said the topic demands a great deal of scrutiny.
“The devil’s in the details,” Smith said.
The Legislature is expected to wrap up the session in May.