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Leonard Bull: Hope springs for Vermont agriculture

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2013-01-17

Last year, the Vermont Legislature created the Working Lands Enterprise Fund and seeded it with a small investment of $1 million. We are now seeing our seeds growing, as agricultural and forest products enterprises have actively applied for the funding. Not surprisingly, the applications far exceed the small seed fund that was started last year (almost $10 requested for every dollar available). The working landscape is not only our heritage, but it is also our future.

At the same time the fund was developed, the legislators crafted a new board to oversee this fund. Creating a new board was a bit controversial, as people asked whether the Vermont Agricultural Development Board couldn’t do this work. In their wisdom, the Legislature added new members and changed our name to the Vermont Agricultural and Forest Products Development Board and also formed the new Working Lands Enterprise Investment Board (WLEB). I say “in their wisdom” because the working landscape is a promising sector of our economy, and we need a concentrated effort, focused on ensuring that we as a state are doing all we can to ensure its success.

The new WLEB rolled up their sleeves and got right to work. They developed criteria for their funding stream, wrote requests for proposals, got the word out, and even held training sessions for entrepreneurs who wanted to apply for the funding. The Agency of Agriculture has been supporting this effort with dedicated staff and other resources. This commitment from the administration has been critical to this effort.

As we head into the legislative session, we have a bold request for legislators this year: Make the investment even bigger. We can see the potential — let’s ensure that we are building on it. The Vermont Agricultural and Forest Products Development Board supports the Working Lands Coalition’s recommendation to commit to $5 million per year for the next three years for the Working Lands Enterprise Fund.

This “5-by-3” investment will turn our promising working landscape into a booming part of our economic future. It will increase our resilience and our access to local food. It will protect our hillsides, as a working forest is a healthy forest. It will celebrate our heritage and ensure our future success. Vermont’s working landscape has always been a part of the fabric of our lives. None of us are ever far from it, and many of us earn our living from it. We all depend on it.

All of us, whether we are a “real Vermonter” or a “flatlander” feel that strong connection to the hills and fields, and each of us has felt our breath catch as we round a corner or crest a hill and see the landscape opening before us.

Last year, sitting in on some of the committee hearings for the Working Lands bill, I felt hopeful. Despite the recession and the tight budget, legislators saw an opportunity to invest in our future economy and in our future generations, and they seized on that opportunity. They took a small step — they created a fund and put a little bit in it to see if there was interest and need. This year, I hope they will see that their little seed has sprouted with enthusiasm, and now they can nurture it and watch it grow.

Leonard Bull, a retired professor and chair of Animal Sciences at UVM, and then head of Animal Science at North Carolina State University where he was also a university administrator, is currently chair of the Vermont Agricultural and Forest Products Development Board, and lives in New Haven.