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Securing the Future of Vermont’s Working Landscape

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2014-01-09

By Jeremy Carter, The Bridge: http://www.montpelierbridge.com/2014/01/securing-the-future-of-vermonts-...

On December 17, 2013, temperatures plummeted, snow plastered the streets and schools closed. And yet, inside Vermont Technical College in Randolph, Vermont, hundreds of Vermonters were busy tilling the soil and sowing seeds—planning the next step for the future of Vermont’s working landscape.

This year’s Summit on the Future of Vermont’s Working Landscape drew over 200 people from around the state. The event showcased the successes of this past year’s grant recipients of the Working Lands Enterprise Fund and looked forward to the work that still needs to be done. Nearly 90 speakers and panelists shared their insights. Several main threads ran throughout these discussions and stitched the summit together like the patchwork quilt of fields and forests that makes up Vermont.

Crossing through and binding together these different narratives were the down-to-earth stories of people’s successes, failures and challenges of working the land. Stories make it possible for farmers and foresters to unite with consumers, chefs and lobbyists. Through these stories, Vermonters become more aware of their connection with and dependence on the land. This awareness creates strong partnerships, which have enabled the progress that has been made and will continue to be integral in shaping future successes.

Speakers were quick to cite success stories, but this did not cloud the second focus of establishing what still needs to be done. Many speakers emphasized the need to create and encourage careers that expand, enhance and preserve our working landscape. Many attendees feared that it is too difficult to find the money to buy land and create the facilities needed to start a business that works the landscape. Carina Driscoll of Vermont Woodworking School said, “We need to make sure that these [economic] opportunities are possible … so that they [students] are not leaving with a lot of debt … so that students can be successful.” Investments in the Working Lands Enterprise Fund has been pegged, by a growing number of Vermonters, as one of the solutions to keeping young people in Vermont and attracting others to the state.

Amanda St. Pierre of Berkshire Cow Power and the St. Pierre Dairy Farm sees additional hurdles to corralling young people into the working landscape movement. “We need to do a better job preparing people for working outside … and for long hours and tough labor,” she said. St. Pierre and others fear that Vermont youth are not learning how to work the land nor gaining the work ethic needed to continue these traditions, which define the Vermont aesthetic and culture.

In an effort to meet this need, farm-to-table and gardening initiatives are taking root in classrooms throughout the state and across grade levels. Those who support the working landscape movement do not see this as just an elective to enhance children’s college applications but rather as an evolution of how Vermonters manage and run big institutions in the state. Colleges and some big businesses are joining in, too, hosting CSA drop-offs and starting gardens. During the summit, one breakout group focused exclusively on the role of higher education in developing local and sustainable food systems.

People are flocking to the working landscape movement from all directions. The movement runs across society and has taken on the look of a political caucus—a caucus that carries real weight. During a period of economic decline and limited capacity for state funding, it is the only new program started under the Shumlin administration.

The caucus enjoys popular support, drawing committed advocates from across political lines. United by a desire to protect the landscape that is integral to Vermont’s unique identity, the movement provides policy makers with a common goal that transcends differences and overcomes political gridlock. Paul Harwood, a forester, captures the heart of the movement: “Our goals are honorable. Our goals are to protect and preserve the environment.” This message resonates with Vermonters and consumers.

Selling the Story

While Vermonters agree that the Vermont working landscape is valuable, there is still plenty of room in the market for products grown and produced from the working landscape. Jeremy Stevenson of Spring Brook Farm and Vermont Cheese Council said, “The marketplace is ready for products with a story.”

To get their stories to market, producers will need more support from investors. Since the creation of the Working Lands Enterprise Fund, and after just one year, it is clear that the market is there. This investment will have to continue if Vermonters are serious about preserving the aesthetic that they love. They have to be willing to make a commitment to partner with farmers, foresters and value-added producers.

When Katie Adams and Chris Brooks of Vermont Wood Pellet Company were designing their business model, they made a decision. “We decided we would do it, like most of you, a different way—the Vermont way,” said Brooks.

The Working Lands Enterprise Fund is uniquely Vermont, designed by and for Vermonters to protect the things we value most. As consumers, it is up to us to effect our values with every purchase.

Five Steps to Ensure the Success of the Working Lands Initiative

From Andrew Meyer of Vermont Soy and Vermont Natural Coatings

1. The state of Vermont needs to value the landscape as a working resource for agriculture and for forest- and food-based businesses; one example is maintaining the current-use program.

2. Businesses need to engage in business-to-business collaboration and partnership by building common brands, messages and marketing strategies and sharing resources.

3. From prekindergarten to higher education, Vermont needs to incorporate place-based learning in its educational programs: children who value where they live are more likely to protect the environment and recognize its opportunities.

4. The state, organizations and individuals need to share the risks of farmers and entrepreneurs by not only buying local but also investing in the enterprises and products they believe in and value.

5. Farmers and entrepreneurs need to be encouraged to take leadership positions in state government.