By PETER HIRSCHFELD, VERMONT PRESS BUREAU
MONTPELIER — The idea wasn’t new — energize a flagging agriculture sector by treating farm-based enterprises like dot.com startups.
But backers of the “working lands” program proposed at the outset of the 2012 session asked for more than just the feel-good policy language.
They wanted money – $3 million, to be precise.
“We’re accustomed to investing resources in traditional industry in this building, but we haven’t always been willing to give the same treatment to our farms,” said Rep. Will Stevens, a Shoreham Independent.
“Working lands” didn’t end up getting the full request. But the $1.175 million to which House and Senate lawmakers finally agreed is being viewed as a victory for a new program that will now be in line annually new for additional appropriations.
About $200,000 will be used to fund two new jobs at the Agency of Agriculture, including one designed specifically to help farm and forest-based businesses navigate complex regulations and develop sound business plans.
The remaining $1 million will fund grants and loans for a range of agricultural businesses.
“It could be access to capital for folks in that phase of development where all they need is that one-time infusion of money to start seeing exponential growth, to a more established operation that’s ready to grow but needs money for capital improvements,” Stevens says.
Stevens says the fund will also support the purchase of major infrastructure – like the food venture center in Hardwick – that will benefit a diverse cross section of producers and processors.
“The idea here is to make sure that in 50 years, Vermont still looks like Vermont, and we still have land that people can find a profit in,” Stevens said.