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Stevens commentary: Working Lands bill is sound policy


Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Rep. Will Stevens, an independent from Shoreham who is a member of the House Agriculture Committee. He and his wife own Golden Russet Farm.

I’ve often been asked, “What’s so special about the Working Lands bill (H.496)?” or a variant, “What does H.496 do that can’t be done without it?” These are great questions.

The Working Lands bill, as passed by the House (131-5), puts Vermont’s forest product and agricultural sectors firmly in the world of economic development planning. It is a commitment of support to those businesses and individuals who make a living with and from Vermont’s renewable natural resource base. It is a statement that we do not take their efforts and the back-breaking work of those who came before for granted. It is a commitment to the idea that someday, 50 or 100 years from now, folks won’t wake up one day and wonder where the farms and sawmills and well-managed woods have gone. It reflects the concept that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, and that the second best time is today.

Those are the aspirational aspects of the bill. The nuts and bolts of it are found in the creation of the Working Lands Enterprise Fund (WLEF) and the Working Lands Enterprise Board (WLEB).

Simply put, H.496 puts into place a rational system of investment prioritization in the ag and forest products sectors. It does this by:

  • taking the politics out of funding pet projects by the Legislature;
  • encouraging the private sector to engage in a competitive process for “stimulus funds” that will help their businesses grow more quickly; and by
  • making investments or incentive opportunities in areas that often aren’t made by the private sector (such as research).

The intent is that all this will result in business development, job creation and sustainable growth and development in those areas over which we have a lot of control: our people, our image (or brand) and our natural resource base.

The WLEF in H.496 contains funds dedicated to three areas – grant opportunities for start-up entrepreneurs and businesses, wrap-around financial products for growth enterprises suited to their stage of growth and capital needs, and infrastructure investments designed to leverage economic cluster development and activity. The WLEF is also intended to attract and leverage private capital and foundation (philanthropic) support and investment.

The WLEB is envisioned as an implementation board that will direct funds from the WLEF to appropriate grantors and areas of highest priority investment. It is also set up to receive federal funds, in the way the Agricultural Innovation Center (which the WLEB replaces) was. Some of the areas identified during extensive testimony in the House Agriculture Committee include education and workforce training, technical and business assistance, and infrastructural investments.

The bill (as passed the House) also carries an appropriation for staff and administration support from the Agency of Agriculture that will be critical to successfully carrying out the goals and objectives of the WLEB.

It’s exciting to think that this is a transformational moment in Vermont, because passage of the Working Lands bill represents the expression that in our past we will find our future.