The Mountain Times

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OP-ED: Working Lands Enterprise Investment, a budgetary and legislative priority

Last month, Governor Shumlin announced his priorities for the upcoming legislative session. As notable as what we heard was something we didn't hear: discussion about economic development and Vermont's working landscape.

Last year, the Legislature passed H.496, the Working Lands Enterprise Investment bill, which, with the Governor's signature, became Act 142. It creates the Working Lands Enterprise Board (WLEB), made up of individual Vermonters who are active in the farm, forest product, and value-added sectors, which oversees a fund of nearly one million dollars. It is a marriage of tradition and modernity in that it supports private enterprise and light-handed government as it embraces contemporary concepts such as stakeholder identification, collaboration, coalition-building, and strategic intervention.

The Act puts us in position to maintain our cultural heritage by acknowledging that people have a place on the land. It promotes the concept that individuals and businesses that support the wise stewardship of the land are welcome here, especially if they utilize our land and natural resource base in ways that meaningfully contribute to our economy. It also builds on the Farm-to-Plate Strategic Plan, which has been adopted as our roadmap for growing Vermont's food system and serves as an important guide to deploying Working Lands Enterprise funding in the ag and food sectors.

The genesis for this visionary effort comes straight from Joni Mitchell: "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone..." In that context, Act 142 represents a timely and potentially transformative commitment of state resources toward a sector of Vermont's economy that shows great promise for the future.

The Legislature showed a lot of courage last spring as it crafted H.496, and the Administration pushed back hard, with good reason. Money was (and continues to be) tight, and there are a lot of competing priorities. Although the funding for this initiative was not in the Governor's original F/Y 2013 budget, it became clear as the discussion evolved that no one wanted to be in the position of someday wondering why our farmers and loggers have disappeared.

This is a pivotal time for the ag and forest product sectors in Vermont, and the idea that those sectors could meaningfully drive future economic development became too compelling to ignore, as the potential ancillary benefits to our environment, our communities, and our "brand" became clear.

To its credit, the administration recognized the value of this effort and has whole-heartedly kicked off the implementation process.

In the rollout, announcement in Middlebury on Nov. 29, Agency of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Jolinda LaClair announced that the WLEB is now ready to receive requests for proposals for grants in three priority areas of investment: start-up or expanding entrepreneurial enterprises; technical, research, or support services for farm and forest product-related businesses; and capital or infrastructural needs or improvements. Potential applicants have been lining up in anticipation of leveraging private and foundation (philanthropic) dollars with state money in ways that will undoubtedly energize our economy. Rumor has it that the WLEB is worried about the high number of applications they might receive, but in this economic environment, that's a reason to celebrate, not worry! Demand defines need, and design reveals intent. Act 142 is meant to draw on, and support, the best of Vermont.

All that said, this is not the time to pat ourselves on the back and declare, "Job well done!" Rather, it is time to up the ante and sustain the initiative by infusing additional capital into the Working Lands Enterprise Fund in the Governor's budget so that the economic stimulus germinated by the Working Lands initiative can actually take root and grow.

I'd like to invite the Governor to consider a legacy that includes the same sort of courage he has shown around health care. This legacy will be achieved through economic activity by continuing his investment in Vermonters whose work contributes to the iconic landscape and environmental benefits that set this state apart from all others. Including Vermont's Working Landscape as a budgetary and legislative priority will have a positive multiplier effect on social and economic conditions, and will one day be looked back upon as a truly wise and bold investment in our future.

For more information on the Working Lands Fund (including how to apply), visit www.vermontworkinglands.com.
Will Stevens is an organic market gardener and Independent state representative from Shoreham.