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Costello Commentary: Investing in Vermont's working landscape

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2010-12-22

In early December over 300 farmers and foresters, policy and nonprofit leaders, innovative entrepreneurs, business owners and advocates, packed the State House, attracted by the prospect of a new approach to saving Vermont’s Working Landscape.

Studies like the recent findings of the Council on the Future of Vermont show that Vermonters rank the working landscape as a preeminent value, one essential to us as a people, a reflection of our heritage, and a key foundation for our future. We celebrate the working landscape as central to Vermont’s brand identity and as the critical asset of tourism. It’s the foundation for our quality of life and the reason why many of us choose to live here.

Vermont’s working landscape is primarily the legacy of the economic decisions, investments, risk and sweat equity of generations of farm and forest landowners. It’s the compendium of their practical decisions that have produced the historic pattern of farms, forests, and compact communities that Vermonters value today.

In reviewing the past 40 years of policy related to agriculture and forestry in Vermont a clear pattern emerges. Each commission, each study, calls for diversification and value‐added development. However, as a state and as a people we have not invested in the working landscape commensurate with its importance to us. We haven’t confronted the key challenges or completely understood the potential return on investment in supporting agricultural and forest enterprises to keep the Vermont we so cherish.

We have this perpetual policy discourse on the working landscape because the land in Vermont is crucial to who we are, what attracts us here, and how our economy works. But, as we talk about it, farms go out of business and forests are broken up for house lots, estates, or commercial developments that no longer support working enterprises on the land.
We face a quiet crisis that will end the working landscape as we have known it. It’s time to act.

We have a huge opportunity to advance the growth of the local foods movement and agricultural innovation, and to engage the energies of a new generation of working landscape entrepreneurs.

The Vermont Working Landscape Steering Committee founded by the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD), has produced a five point Action Plan that advocates for new working landscape policy and investment:

A. Build a Major Campaign to Celebrate the Distinctiveness of the Working Landscape that is Vermont.
B. Target Strategic Investment through a Vermont Agriculture and Forest Products Development Corporation.
C. Designate and Support “Working Lands.”
D. Develop Tax Revenue to Support Working Landscape Enterprise Development and Conservation.
E. Build a State Planning Office and Activate the Development Cabinet

At the State House Summit VCRD launched the “Vermont Working Landscape Partnership” to spearhead a movement to implement these policies and investments to ensure the vitality of Vermont’s working landscape for the next generation. So many of the groups represented that day are already striving to achieve this goal. The Partnership is in place to help galvanize their efforts.

Over 200 individuals and organizations are already signed on to support the Action Plan above. To see their names, learn more about the Plan, and add your voice to this rapidly growing Partnership, visit the VCRD website at www.vtrural.org.

It’s time we speak with one voice about what we are for. We have the opportunity in Vermont to build a reputation as the friendliest state in the nation to businesses that connect with our environmental aspirations and values—especially those that can act as long‐term stewards of Vermont’s working landscape. We can claim national leadership as the local foods state, agriculture innovation state, and value‐added forest products state. We can claim it, and then we can make it so.

No one left the Summit thinking this will happen overnight. VCRD is committed to helping the Partnership build support over the next year. Add your voice, talk to others, and help us keep the landscape working for all of us.