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Work the land

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2016-03-09

As seen in the Times Argus: http://tablet.olivesoftware.com/olive/Tablet/BarreTimesArgus/SharedArtic...

There’s money in Vermont’s woods. More than that, there’s a way of life. The Vermont Working Lands Enterprise Initiative released a Forest Sector Analysis report in late February that describes the economic opportunity for Vermont in an existing, but under-used resource: forestland.

Vermont is currently the third most forested state in the nation, with three quarters of its land covered by woods. Over the last three years, the enterprise initiative has distributed $661,000 in grants to forest enterprises, as well as another $609,000 in business assistance support, aimed at developing more forest-related business. These funds have gone to spur new development in a Vermont industry with an existing size of about $1.5 billion annually from wood products like wood chips and pellets, timber and maple syrup. That sector of the state’s economy can still grow, according to the report, which was based on a year of market research, interviews, surveys, workshops and a statewide summit held in June of 2015.

The potential for growth comes from furniture and solid wood products, wood energy and construction, according to the report.

Vermont’s history with its forests is one of boom and bust, at least from the forests’ perspective. At the turn of the 19th Century, the state had less than 25 percent of its land covered by trees, the outcome of generations of intensive farming and grazing. As the agricultural landscape ebbed, the forests grew. As Vermont’s tourism economy grew, the state began to see the need to preserve the image that the tourists had come to expect — a largely rural landscape that was a mix of forestland and agricultural land. Although Act 250 is often seen as an environmental protection law, it also had the impact of preventing much of Vermont from becoming another sprawling suburb.

This has created its own issues, and Vermont is struggling with how to encourage new development and grow business with limited space, as well as how to gain the most economic benefit from rural land. A variety of programs including current use, conservation easements and local land trusts have ensured that broad swaths of the state are now either protected from development or at least sheltered from it through tax abatement. Yet many of these lands are still producing — as timber lands, as small farms, or as pasture or in another agricultural purpose. While a cynic might say the preservation simply protected the views, it’s equally true that the preservation also helped protect agricultural and forestry heritage, in addition to the open space that visitors and locals alike cherish.

To continue to thrive, though, we must find better ways to make use of this resource — a view for the view’s sake is not enough.

The benefit of working lands is that they also preserve a small-scale connection between enterprises, and the initiative report focuses on making that connection more robust. A logger might sell wood to a furniture manufacturer, and other types of wood to a pellet maker. The producers add value and along the chain, the wealth is spread — to truckers, distributors, consumers, landowners and other Vermonters.

The report identifies six of these “value chain opportunities,” where there’s potential for growth with a little work, in three categories: in wood products, construction and wood energy. In general, the work to be done involves better connecting the businesses, and better informing both consumers, the state, and businesses about what is available. If manufacturers don’t have an accurate picture of what is available from local loggers or mills, they might not consider Vermont sourcing. Yet Vermont’s forested land is very fragmented, and there is not a real-time information source for timber harvests on private land. Furthermore, there is a fragmented supply chain for small-scale producers.

This challenge is similar to the challenge faced by Vermont’s diversifying agricultural sector several years ago. Many small scale producers needed to band together to find economies of scale and to pool resources to reach markets and add value after the products left the farm. Food centers — like the one in Hardwick — and local organizations, like the Rutland Area Farm And Food Link, worked to fill that void and create the connections necessary for success. Working with the state and many other organizations, they have built strong support systems to encourage agricultural entrepreneurship. That effort contributed to the creation of the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative, to give broader support to this type of entrepreneurship.

For forest lands, the same type of effort is needed.

At the heart of the enterprise initiative is a principle that is quintessential New England, and more so Vermont: The heart of this state lies in people who make things, with their hands or with their labor. Our economic future may lie primarily in high-tech manufacturing and startups, but a core part of who we are, and who we should continue to be, is a people who are close enough to the land to appreciate its true value.

From the old timers who remember the days when there were more dirt roads than paved, and more dairy farms than developments, to the new generation of small-scale farmers and loggers, the people who work the lands make Vermont a place worth living in.