By Peter Hirschfeld, Vermont Public Radio
For Joe Buely, there was the matter of the potatoes. As Buely’s burgeoning soup-making operation took hold, the process of removing skin from spud was consuming ever greater portions of his employees’ work days.
So when the Working Lands Enterprise Board advertised its first round of grants in 2012, Buley applied for a $15,000 award. And when the check arrived, the owner of Screamin’ Ridge Farm in Montpelier bought himself a commercial potato peeler.
“So effectively where it would take two employees a couple of hours to manually peel potatoes, we’re now cranking out a hundred pounds of potatoes in 10 minutes,”Buley said.
“So it allows me to increase my production enormously.”
The grant funded the purchase of the peeler, a packaging labeler and other equipment to automate and streamline the business. And Buley credits the grant with kick-starting the rapid expansion of a company that he expects to grow from the equivalent of three full-time employees in 2013 to nine or 10 by the end of this year.
Traditional dairy farming may be in decline in Vermont. But state agriculture and commerce officials say the Working Lands program has become a key economic development tool for a Vermont farm sector in the midst of a rapid renaissance.
Created by the Legislature following a push by the Council on Rural Development in 2012, the program has given out more than $1 million worth of grants to 37 agriculture and forestry-related ventures. The Agency of Agriculture estimates those grants will boost the gross income of the grant recipients by an average of $150,000 per year, and will result in 45 new jobs.
Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross said one of the surest ways to retain Vermont’s pastoral landscape is to make sure people can earn a living from the land.
“That is (an) economic engine running and spinning and generating wealth and value in ways that might not have been created had it not been for your commitment to this program,” Ross told lawmakers recently.
Gov. Peter Shumlin is proposing a 5 percent increase in the program’s budget next year, which would mean another $1.5 million in grants.
And supporters say that will mean more stories like the one at Black River Produce, which was able to boost its sales of local meats by using money from the grant to purchase a special $150,000 packaging machine.
“So when you go into a Hannaford or a Shaw’s, and you see an individually portioned steak with a black plastic background that looks really fancy, that’s in essence what this machine does,” said Sean Buchanan, head of strategic development at Black River.
With its flashy new packaging, Buchanan says Black River has seen a surge in demand that will lead to the hiring of as many as 30 new employees next year.