Vermont agriculture, forestry and conservation groups are asking the Legislature to set aside $5 million annually over the next three years to fund forestry and agricultural enterprises.
The request represents a $3.5 million annual increase from the $1.5 million proposed by Gov. Peter Shumlin in his fiscal year 2014 budget.
The groups, however, are facing the harsh reality of a budget ridden with revenue holes, and they have not proposed funding mechanisms for the spending they are requesting.
In 2012, the Vermont Legislature passed Act 142, which created the Vermont Working Lands Enterprise Fund and a board to oversee it. The fund provides grants to businesses for infrastructure, research, marketing development, workforce growth, renewable energy expansion and other initiatives.
Almost $12 million was requested in grants this past year; the money available from the fund is $1 million.
On Wednesday, the Vermont Working Land Coalition, which is comprised of organizations including the Vermont Land Trust and NOFA Vermont, was joined by a tri-partisan group of legislators, who called on the Legislature to adopt their “5×3” initiative. They pointed to demand for these funds and suggested an allocation of $5 million over three years — an appropriation they said would bring a return on investment by helping Vermont businesses grow.
Paul Costello, director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, outlined the type of grant requests that were submitted this year and what the money would mean to communities.
“It’s really diverse, everything from a major goat farm to kilns to new products lines for forest products businesses to cheese making,” he said. “How do we capture the high end value? Right now, we ship an enormous amount of our milk out of our state unprocessed, and we ship a lot of logs out of state, and we’re not capturing the high-end value that can come and cycle in our communities and multiply there.”
Rep. Charles Conquest, D-Wells River, said that Vermont’s annual budget is a reflection of the state’s values. While he expressed his gratitude to the governor for offering up $1.5 million for the fund, he said it’s not enough.
“We need to recognize the central importance of working landscape enterprises to the Vermont economy and invest in them accordingly,” Conqust said. “This is one of those rare areas of state budget where not only are we supporting our values, but we can expect an economic return from that support.”