Vermont Public Radio:

According to those working to improve farming and forestry opportunities in Vermont, the state is experiencing a renaissance.  There’s an influx of interested young people and a host of new ideas for keeping the land productive.

The third annual Financing the Working Landscape Conference Thursday  in Middlebury will provide a chance to discuss one of the key challenges for farm and forestry businesses:  finding money to start-up and grow.

Paul Costello, Executive Director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development can recite a long list of examples to show how the use of Vermont’s working lands is no longer solely about producing commodities like milk and lumber.

“I think we’re in a real time of innovation and creativity, with burgeoning value-added processing going on and real excitement around farm and forest development especially among young people. Farming is cool again,” Costello says.

According the the U.S. Department of Agriculture Vermont saw a nearly 25 percent decline in acres being farmed over a 30 year period up to 2007.  Costello says the new diversity and an emphasis on sustainability, specialization and local food systems is helping keep land in production. Financing is always a challenge, though.

“The cost of buying land is prohibitive and the returns on investment in agriculture are going to be very slow. This isn’t Wall Street where you put money and you pull back out when the market rises. Slow money needs to come in,” says Costello.

He says loans are available through traditional lenders like Yankee Farm Credit and The Vermont Economic Development Authority.  He also cites new financial approaches to keeping land in production, like the Vermont Land Trust’s Farmland Access Program.  And there is the new Working Lands Enterprise Initiative. Now in its second year it provides grants for farming and forestry.

A recent round of grants drew 400 applications amounting to $12 million in requests.  Yet the program had less than one million dollars to distribute – and the grants are small. Costello says the value for those who receive them is they help businesses leverage money from other sources.

“There are a lot of financing options available and a lot of people don’t know what they are,” says  Robin Scheu, who serves on the Working Lands Enterprise board.  Scheu is also Executive Director of the Addison County Economic Development Corporation, which is cosponsoring the Financing the Working Landscape Conference.

“Part of what we are trying to do is help businesses see what the resources are.  In many cases money may not be answer.  It may mean that they need technical assistance,” says Scheu.

She says interest in maintaining the working landscape goes well beyond those who are farming or working in the forests.

In a survey taken by the Council on the Future of Vermont several years ago Vermonters placed the working landscape and its heritage at the top of the list of values they said they strongly agree with.