Representative Carolyn Partridge, Chair of the House Agriculture Committee, overviews H.496, the Working Lands Enterprise Bill which was introduced this year.
In 2009, the Legislature passed the Farm to Plate Investment Act. The three major goals were to create 1,500 jobs over the next 10 years, increase economic output, and put more nutritious Vermont food on Vermont tables.
Over the last two years, we have invested additional funds and during a briefing on F2P this week, it was revealed that the benefits are beginning to show. The $1.265-million investment has leveraged additional funds for a total of $3.9 million spent on the Vermont food system. In only two years, we have added 497 jobs in the food system sector so we are well on our way to the goal of 1,500 jobs in 10 years.
Many food hubs have sprung up all over the state during the last couple of years and, more locally, the work of Post Oil Solutions in the Windham County area has furthered the goals of F2P. For more information regarding their work, contact www.postoilsolutions.org.
More recently, the Vermont Council on Rural Development, a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the progress of our rural communities, convened the Working Landscape Steering Committee, which included Windham County people -- former Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets, Roger Allbee of Townshend, and Greg Brown of Dummerston. Acting on the work and conclusions of the Council on the Future of Vermont, the Working Landscape Partnership was founded and stakeholders from every corner of Vermont formed the Vermont Working Landscape Council.
One of the clear messages the Council on the Future of Vermont heard was the value Vermonters place on the working landscape. There is a recognition that all Vermonters benefit from the working landscape and that the very existence of the working landscape depends on a strong farm and forest economy. The open, pastoral fields that people enjoy when they come from out-of-state don't just happen -- there is significant sweat equity involved, whether it is pasture land, cropped, or hayed.
Due to low milk prices, we have lost many dairy farms, our anchor agricultural sector. Forestry has suffered in recent years with sawmills going out of business and logs leaving the state by the truckload. While the number of farms has actually increased, they are generally smaller and the farmers can't make a living from their farms alone. There is concern that we are at a tipping point. We could lose this valuable asset and if we want these industries and the working landscape to survive, we will have to take action.
As a result of this work, H.496, the Working Lands Enterprise Bill, was introduced in the House on a multi-partisan basis and is being worked on by the Agriculture Committee. The action steps called for in the final plan of the Working Landscape Partnership/Council are reflected in the bill. Building a major campaign to celebrate, honor, and call attention to the importance of the working landscape in Vermont is the first step. The Vermont Agriculture and Forest Products Development Fund would be created by this legislation, which would target strategic investment and have the ability to accept grant money and other sources of income. The bill creates a process by which working lands could be designated on a voluntary basis, either through the town planning process or on an individual basis with economic benefits to follow. Coordinating land use planning from the local to state level is another goal of the proposed legislation, as well as a "one-stop regulatory shop" for people wanting to become farmers or foresters, or want to get involved in a related field, such as cheese-making or light processing.
When Roger Allbee testified in our committee, he spoke about the need for bold action and the creation of jobs at the local level. The Working Lands Enterprise Bill would be that bold action -- an investment in job creation, the working landscape, and the future of Vermont. His vision led us to create the Agriculture Development Board last biennium, meant to transcend the changes in administration. Roger's experience and wisdom should be heeded at this time.
It was with disappointment that we listened to Governor Shumlin's Budget Address, when it became clear that money for this effort was not included in his proposal. We will continue to work on the bill and remain hopeful that when the revenue forecast is released soon, indicators might allow for this investment in Vermont's Agriculture and Forestry Renaissance to go forward.