By Mike Faher, as seen in the vtdigger.org: http://vtdigger.org/2015/10/11/working-lands-supporters-lobby-for-fundin...
BRATTLEBORO – Creamy goat-milk caramels have become a big business for Townshend’s Big Picture Farm.
And as the farm underwent a recent expansion, a $20,000 state Working Lands grant played a key role: The money was, Big Picture co-founder Lucas Farrell said, a “game-changer.”
“The Working Lands grant is as direct and effective an investment in the health of our local economy and working landscape as you’re likely to find anywhere, period,” Farrell said.
But even after three successful, high-demand years, Working Lands grant funding has been cut nearly in half for the current application cycle, which began Oct. 1. And as the state continues to struggle with tight budgets, some who have championed the fledgling program worry about its future and expect another funding battle in 2016.
“This is one program that has really shown great results,” said Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham and chairwoman of the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee.
Patridge wants to create a dedicated revenue source for Working Lands, but she says there is no appetite to raise a broad-based tax to support the grant program.
Act 142 created the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative in 2012 with the goal of boosting Vermont’s agricultural and forestry businesses through an annual cash grant program.
It was no small task, Partridge says creating a new program in a bad economy. “I spent every cent of political capital I had trying to push this through, and I had a really wonderful committee that was willing to see it through,” Partridge said. “People saw the value of it.”
That predicted value, she and others say, has been borne out in the impact of Working Lands funds. A fact sheet for the current fiscal year shows a total of $3.2 million in state funding distributed to 112 agricultural and forestry projects in all 14 Vermont counties.
Thirty-nine Working Lands-funded projects have been completed so far, and the state grants have leveraged $4.9 million in matching funds and have created 65 new, full-time-equivalent jobs, according to state statistics.
Ninety-one percent of grantees increased capacity to fulfill additional contracts.
That’s the case at Big Picture Farm, where a 2014 Working Lands grant assisted with the purchase and installation of a walk-in freezer and cooler, two components of a creamery expansion.
“These were assets that we couldn’t quite squeeze into our budget this year,” Farrell said. “But acquiring them with the help of the grant has meant we’ve been able to increase production in the short-term, grow our inventory and match the growing demand for our product.”
Not far to the south, in Vernon, Vermont Woods Studios is another Working Lands beneficiary. The business landed a $100,000 grant in the program’s first year, money that gave Vermont Woods Studios the push it needed to move into a new headquarters in a fully renovated, two-century-old farmhouse called Stonehurst.
“We were able to complete this place in one phase instead of two, so we saved a year of time,” said Peggy Farabaugh, who founded the furniture business in her Vernon home.
While Vermont Woods Studios leans heavily on online sales, the Stonehurst project gave Farabaugh a place to “expand our clientele to include those who aren’t willing to buy online.”
Vermont Council on Rural Development has created a webpage to showcase grant winners’ projects. But Executive Director Paul Costello says the Working Lands funding is tenuous: Last year, he was among those lobbying the Legislature to keep the program going.
The Shumlin administration’s proposed budget last year would have made $500,000 available only to nonprofit “technical-assistance providers,” Costello said.
As Working Lands funding waxed and waned throughout the legislative budget process for fiscal year 2016, “the work of Carolyn (Partridge) and her committee was crucial to bringing up the amount of funding and ensuring that it had direct job-creation impact in private-sector business growth,” Costello said.
The final Working Lands allocation for fiscal 2016 wasn’t on par with previous years. After three grant cycles that each featured $1 million or more, there is just $550,000 available for the application period that started Oct. 1. But, given where the budget conversation began, Partridge said she is “really thankful” for the grant funding.
There is no shortage of support for the Working Lands Program: Vermont Council on Rural Development leads a coalition that pushes for continued funding, and its membership includes such organizations as the Vermont Land Trust, Vermont Farm Bureau, Vermont Natural Resources Council, Vermont Wood Manufacturers Association, the Woodstock Foundation and Shelburne Farms.
“We believe that the dedication of public funds is wise for this program … and the numbers bear that out,” Costello said.
Looking ahead to the next budget process, however, Costello said he couldn’t yet hazard a guess about the size of the Working Lands allocation. “We think that the governor has accomplished something significant (with the Working Lands program),” Costello said. “So we hope that he sees this as a major success and a lasting legacy.”
Shumlin’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the Working Lands program.
In the long term, Partridge says scrounging for general fund money to support the program isn’t feasible. She wants a separate, direct funding source, and she has proposed raising the state’s meals and rooms tax by 1 percent or even 0.5 percent.
The full 1 percent hike could be an agricultural heritage or agricultural enterprise tax, Partridge said, and the revenues could support other agricultural initiatives as well. The meals and rooms tax “mostly targets out-of-staters who come to Vermont to enjoy the beauty of our state, much of which has to do with our working landscape,” Partridge said.
So far, the tax idea has not caught on. Even Costello stops short of endorsing a higher meals and rooms tax.
“As a committee, we haven’t embraced any single funding mechanism yet,” Costello said.
That doesn’t mean, however, that he won’t be working hard to promote the program once the 2016 legislative session begins.
“There isn’t another jobs bill like it,” Costello said. “Dollars are tight everywhere, but we do feel optimistic that this is coming into permanency and there will be funding. We certainly will be telling the story and asking for support from the Legislature.”