New Vermont legislation that appears to have broad support seeks to promote turning milk into cheese, apples into cider and trees into furniture as keys to keeping the state's working landscape of farms and forests vital to its economic future.
The product of a year's work by the Vermont Working Landscape Partnership, the legislation announced by the group Wednesday would set up a new fund to make loans and grants to help startup farms, logging operations and businesses that turn raw materials into finished products.
The new fund would distribute $3 million the first year, a figure that eventually would reach $15 million annually. Money for the program would come from the state general fund.
The partnership, an offshoot of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, held a news conference to promote the legislation. The chairs and several members of both the House and Senate Agriculture committees attended the news conference, a clear sign of their support.
Put Blodgett, a former dairy farmer who went on to work in the forest-products industry, said his goal is to see less of Vermont's felled trees leave the state as raw logs and more as furniture or other finished products.
"Right here in central Vermont we have the best sugar maple in the world," said Blodgett, president of the Vermont Woodlands Association. "What do we do with it? We ship most of it out of state or overseas."
Farming and forestry experts have been saying for years that with dairying, long the mainstay of Vermont's farm economy, in rapid decline, the state needs to diversify its agricultural base and "add value" — turning raw vegetables into canned goods and milk into a broad range of specialty cheeses, for example.
The state already has a range of programs in the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets and the Agency of Commerce and Community Development that promote Vermont's agricultural products, said Sen. Sara Kittell, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
"This legislation will kind of pull it all together," she said.
Aside from the new grants and loans, the bill would set up a board to administer the funds and coordinate efforts of the various state agencies, which would have representatives on the 13-member panel.
In addition, it would set up a new "working lands" designation for parcels of property devoted to farming, forestry and related industries. Municipalities would be encouraged to give tax breaks to the owners of those parcels, and the owners would see reductions in state capital gains and estate taxes.
Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, said he hoped the bill would help foster new markets for the produce from the commercial organic vegetable farm he and his wife Judy have operated for 30 years.
"My dream is that someone will be able to continue farming on that land long after we're gone," he said.