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Working Lands end-of-year report points to success stories

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2016-02-05

As seen in vtdigger.org: http://vtdigger.org/2016/02/05/working-lands-end-of-year-report-points-t...

A state investment fund credited with helping a growing group of businesses and farms was put on full display Thursday at the Statehouse.

Lawmakers and state officials had front row seats at the third annual report of the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative. Established by the Legislature in 2012, the initiative comprises a fund and a board to oversee grants and investments in Vermont forestry and agriculture businesses. To date, the fund has pumped more than $3 million into over 100 different projects.

As a part of the public report, four business owners — all recipients of grants — spoke and answered questions about what they’ve done with the money and how it’s given their businesses new life. Annual reports for the previous two years weren’t as substantive as this one, said Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross.

“There is more to say now that we’ve got three years under our belt,” he said.

Parker Nichols, founder of Vermont Wildwoods, a wood flooring company in Marshfield, won a $20,000 grant. The money went to produce specialty lumber that saved an important business project. However, he also used his time at the event to warn that his industry faces serious challenges.

“If I didn’t get this grant, this project would be over,” Nichols said. “I spent all of my own money and wasn’t going to spend any more.”

Nichols makes spalted maple wood, essentially a naturally colored wood. To make it, fungus is cultivated and, through a controlled process, is allowed to slightly decompose the wood, thereby coloring it.

“I’m taking perfectly good Vermont maple and I’m rotting it,” he said.

If the project takes off and people like his new spalted maple wood products, Nichols said he could see his company building a full-scale manufacturing facility and employing from seven to 10 people.

Meanwhile, other companies he relies on have closed their doors.

“My supply chain has collapsed,” Nichols said. Two different saw mills, a dry kiln and a secondary manufacturer have all gone out of business. He relied on all those businesses to run his own, he said.

“The good news is, the work that you all are doing has never been more needed than it is right now,” Nichols said.

The initiative has consistently distributed slightly more than $1 million a year for three years, but applicants have gone down. In the first year of the fund there were almost 400 businesses applying for a grant. In 2015, there were 132. Officials running the initiative said since the first year, they’ve had less applicants but better, more comprehensive business plans.

This year, state money going toward the program was cut almost in half, from $1 million per year to about $550,000 according to Jolinda LaClair, deputy secretary of agriculture.

If a grant doesn’t get accepted, the board will point businesses to other investment opportunities in the public or private sector, or set them up with a consultant who helps with their business plan.

Sara Schlosser, co-owner of Sandiwood Farm in Wolcott, just won a $9,950 grant from the fund to build a greenhouse on her farm. Schlosser wasn’t a panelist, but she stayed to watch the presentation and promote her business. She had applied for a grant once before, but was denied.

“It was long and laborious. We weren’t proving that we had a supply chain and could keep people employed.” She said. “Learning how to prove that in our second application was key.”

The process of writing a grant took Schlosser about 100 hours, she said, but after her application was denied, she had to push to get feedback on what she could do better.

“It took a lot of time,” Schlosser said. “I just found the secretary’s number and called him, and I had someone on the phone with me after that.”

Karen Guile of Peaslee’s Potatoes in Guildhall won a $20,000 grant from the fund last year to buy new farm equipment.

Peaslee’s potatoes is one of two potato farms in Vermont, and the only female-run potato farm in the country, Guile said. The farm was founded by Guile’s grandparents in 1928.

Guile fought through tears as she talked about her farm, which was months from closing in 2012, she said.

“Without the Working Lands, we would just be another farm which ceases to exist,” she said.