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Advocates push for 'working landscapes' bill


BRATTLEBORO -- Former agriculture secretary Roger Allbee smiles when he talks about Vermont's farming renaissance in the last decade.

He also beams when reviewing the industry's future.

"The future has always been adding value, whether it's butter or cheese or the growth of farmers' markets. It's moving into investments and to these higher products for consumers and the growing markets in the Northeast," he said.

Allbee, a Townshend resident and former head of the agriculture agency under Gov. James Douglas, currently serves as chairman with the state's Working Landscape Partnership formed through the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

And through his role with the council, he is working with lawmakers to revitalize the state's farm and forest industries through new legislation designed to create a marketing campaign for the agricultural sector and build an enterprise fund for Vermont's working landscape.

"It takes capital, it takes leadership and it takes investment, both public and private, to make it happen," he said to the Reformer on Friday morning.

The Working Lands Enterprise Investment Bill has already gained traction in the Vermont Senate and advocates expect a similar bill introduced in the House when the 2012 session convenes.

The legislation brings to life a recently published working lands report that calls for greater investments in the agricultural industry and more incentives to keep remaining working lands in a productive state. And after Tropical Storm Irene in August, advocates for the measure want to build on the state's resiliency and focus on the working lands economy and small businesses.

Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, said advocates for the legislation are looking at this as a historic challenge.

"We built a council to do an analysis of all the issues and think about the big picture of what do we need to do in Vermont to have a strong farm and forest sector 20 years from now? This needs to be addressed with a vision," Costello said.

That vision in building the legislation advocates for a major marketing campaign to focus on longtime staple industries in Vermont, such as farming and forest products.

Despite the Green Mountain State's rural lands and tiny population, Vermont is the national leader in organic farms, Community Supported Agriculture development, farmers' markets and direct farm sales to consumers. Only the dairy industry is in a slump as the number of milking operations in Vermont is at perhaps its lowest level in more than a century.

"Even with the challenge to dairy, we're situated in a very strong position. We have a very creative forest products industry, a deep sense of heritage, very valuable hardwood forests," Costello said.

"We believe that Vermont is in a situation where we can say that Vermont is going to be the national leader in the local foods movement, the foods systems movement, creative entrepreneurship and natural resource economy as a whole, and make that a big target for ourselves and market that idea nationally to reach a generation of young people who are looking for where this work is going to center and can reconnect to the land," he continued.

Said Allbee: "The brand is so important for what Vermont is all about."

Supporters like Allbee and Costello cite the need for a generational shift in farming that will bring younger adults into the state. And to do so requires investment.

If approved, the legislation would establish a working lands enterprise fund to administer grants to small and start-up businesses and provided necessary infrastructure to support those investments. The first year funding request is $3 million, with the goal of increasing it to $15 million.

Costello said pushing for more economic development is as fundamental as marketing Vermont's brand.

"It's all about job creation and business development in the end," he said. "Let's identify the next Cabot, the next Ben & Jerry's and help them be successful."

A new working lands board would oversee the enterprise fund and coordinate all economic development efforts. Having the new supervising group would dissolve the Agriculture Innovation Center Board and the Farm Viability Enhancement Program Advisory Board.

Click HERE to read the article on the Brattleboro Reformer website.