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Costello Commentary: Support funding for Vermont Working Lands


Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, which is coordinating the work of the Vermont Working Landscape Partnership.

Right now, Vermont has an opportunity to build a new, stronger economy. That opportunity is H.496, the Working Lands Enterprise bill, being considered in the Vermont Legislature this year.

With this bill we can be the “value-added state.” We can raise the flag here in Vermont as an innovation leader for national food systems and natural resource development. We can tell our country, and our own children, that Vermont is dedicated to the future of the working landscape, and to an economic development strategy that supports rural prosperity.

Vermont dairy farmers are once again seeing a cyclical drop in dairy prices. Regional leaders are advocating for supply management to keep commodity production low and stabilize dairy prices. Meanwhile, the state of Wisconsin is investing in the rapid expansion of milk production for commodity sale as a cornerstone of their state economic development policy.

Vermont farmers will not win a race to the bottom in the commodity market. For the last 30 years, each time milk prices have fallen dramatically Vermont has reached the same conclusion: We need to invest in diversification and value-added development.

Until now, however, the state has not backed this policy position with real investment. The Working Lands bill would make this commitment and begin the revitalization of Vermont agriculture and forest products.

Today in Vermont, we have more than 7,000 farms – many more than we had 10 years ago. Our agricultural sector deeply connects to our history, values, and aspirations as a state, and this growth is encouraging. At the same time that the number of all kinds of farms is growing, the tough reality is that in the last 10 years we lost more than a third of the dairies in Vermont, and the number of farms that provide an income that can support a family has declined.

Meanwhile, the other and less heralded foundation of Vermont’s working landscape, the working forest economy, is in jeopardy with a loss of production estimated at 40 percent over the last decade.

We have the power and opportunity right now in Vermont to lead an agricultural and forest products renaissance. The Vermont Working Lands Enterprise bill would support entrepreneurism, provide wrap-around services to growth businesses, and build infrastructure that can help farm, forest and value-added enterprises expand, build new jobs and systematically strengthen the natural resource economy.

Agriculture committees in the House and Senate have both approved the bill unanimously, and the full House and Senate followed with votes of 131-5, and 28-0 respectively. Now they are debating the details and, finally, the budget.

In 2010, the Council on the Future of Vermont, founded and produced by VCRD, asked thousands of Vermonters what we stand for, above politics, and for the long-term future of the state. The top ranked value that Vermonters shared was for the working landscape.

I want to stand for this, too.

I want to stand with the farmer, the forest worker, the creative entrepreneur. I want to stand with the long-term goal of conservation. I want to stand by people who work hard with their hands, who take big risks, and steward our land. Their work benefits all of us, and all of us should contribute to support their success.

I want to support this bill because I want to stand by what I love most about Vermont — its beauty, character and hard-working people. Please join me in supporting investment in Vermont’s working landscape, now, and for the future, by showing your support for H. 496.