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Landscape at work

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2012-05-11

The passage of a bill this year to boost farm and forest enterprise says something about the pervasive and enduring commitment of Vermonters to the rural character of their state.

The bill was the product of extensive work by the Council on Rural Development, which has been a leader in giving voice to sentiments widely shared by Vermont’s diverse population. The council’s work in conducting a broad and thorough discussion among Vermonters from all walks of life enabled it to give credence to the notion that Vermonters on the whole cherish the working landscape within which they live.

The working landscape consists of the pattern, lost in many other states, of discrete town and village centers surrounded by farms and forests that are actively in use, providing jobs and producing goods for market. Preserving Vermont’s open lands has long been a goal in Vermont policy going back to the 1960s and the creation of Act 250 in 1970. Vermonters did not want the rural character of the state despoiled by rampant development. But the aim of preserving the environment faces constant challenge by the forces of economic development, and the council’s work was useful in showing that Vermonters continue to value their rural heritage.

But the phrase working landscape has two parts: We want to preserve the landscape, but the best way to do so, we have learned, is for the landscape itself to be an economic plus. If it is a working landscape, the pressure to develop it will encounter a counter-pressure.

So the council proposed the Working Lands Enterprise Investment Bill, which would set up a mechanism in state government to provide seed money for farm and forest enterprises that will keep alive Vermont’s rural renaissance. Significantly, the bill sought an appropriation of $3 million from the state for personnel to administer the program and seed money for farm and forest businesses.

The Shumlin administration initially balked at the appropriation of money during a time when budgets are tight and the economy is slow. And yet Gov. Peter Shumlin had featured Vermont’s rural renaissance as a fundamental component of his political program. He talked about it frequently, even in his inaugural address, and here was a vehicle to show that he meant what he said. Was he going to back away from it?

Ultimately, he did not, and the Legislature passed a bill appropriating $1.7 million. That is a significant achievement at a time when the creation of new programs is a rarity. Now there will be a program to help establish the kind of food-processing infrastructure that has furthered job growth and prosperity in Hardwick, as well as helping farm and forest enterprises get started around the state.

That there is a rural renaissance cannot be denied. Vermont’s farmers’ markets are flourishing. The proliferation of name-brand products continues, including award-winning cheeses, dairy products, meat, vegetables, fruit and value-added products such as salsas and crackers. Vermonters are making wine. The opportunity to start up farm or food-related businesses is attracting new young people and keeping young Vermonters here. This is a policy to further Vermont prosperity and to keep our communities alive. It is a renaissance for which we can all be glad.

The locavore food movement is taking off around the country, but it is especially strong in Vermont. It may happen that as more and more local products are made available, the more prices will come down, making local food more readily accessible to those with less money.

Another component of the working lands bill is the emphasis on the state’s woodlands. Our forests are a rich resource and potential source of jobs. They may face new pressure in the coming years as we search for fuel to burn, and it will be important to keep alive the opportunities for multiple uses of the woods. Wise stewardship of the woods will ensure that our forests are also an important part of our working landscape.

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