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New law aims to grow Vt farming, forestry


SHOREHAM, Vt. - If there is any question how important rolling fields and forests are to Vermont, consider this.

"Agriculture is in the neighborhood of 20 percent of the land base, forestry is about 75 percent and that is most of our landscape, and the rest of us spend our time and energy on about 5 percent of the land... and the forests and farms surround us," Vt. Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross said.

Which is why bill H.496, the Working Lands Enterprise Investment Bill, sailed through the Legislature and was signed into law by the governor earlier this month. The law creates a $2 million fund and a board to oversee those funds. The goal is to stimulate economic development in the agriculture and forest products sectors.

The origins of the bill actually started years ago.

"The Vermont Council on Rural Development built the council on the future of Vermont five years ago to look into the things that Vermonters say we stand for. And out of that came this overwhelming sense that Vermonters love and are dedicated to the future of the land," said Paul Costello of the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

Rep. Will Stevens, I Shoreham, was one of the main sponsors of the bill in the House. He is also a farmer, producing flowers and organic vegetables. He says the funds will be used as seed money to help existing business or new start ups grow.

"It's an economic development bill and that is the bottom line. You know, people need to remember that this is an ED bill that draws on the work we have done both at a policy level, as well as at an entrepreneurial level over the years. So what it's done is put all that together," Stevens said.

Stevens says the key to this legislation is that it focuses on local control and the long history of what the state does best.

"We can work hard to get other Huskies or IBMs in the state and so forth, but we don't at the end of the day own that. We don't control that. This stuff we control," Stevens said.

Where does the leadership for these projects come from? Costello says the ground up, of course.

"It is going to come from the business community on both the farm and forest side. This is about hard business entrepreneurs building new ideas and coming to look for investment that helps them attract other dollars," Costello said.

Other dollars that can come from nonprofits or the private business sector interested in supporting new opportunities in Vermont.