By Kevin O'Connor, Times Argus: RANDOLPH — When Gov. Peter Shumlin was growing up a half-century ago, Vermont’s agricultural engine was fueled by milk: “If you had asked people outside the dairy industry then to get together and talk about how we’re going to make more value-added products, we could have met in a phone booth.”
Fast forward to Tuesday, when the local boy turned state leader addressed more than 300 policymakers and producers of everything from goat’s milk caramel to wood-stove pellets at the Summit on the Future of Vermont’s Working Landscape at Vermont Technical College.
The Shumlin administration, forced to curtail spending the past three years, has found money for one new program: $1 million this past year and more the next for a Working Lands Enterprise Initiative to help residents diversify the state’s farm and forestry industry.
Dozens of manufacturers joined local and state leaders and representatives of education, tourism, recreation and philanthropy to explore ways to cultivate economic vitality through the environment.
“The people who work in the farms, food processing and forestry hold the soul of this state in their hands,” Vermont Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross told the crowd. “We have a dynamic, active working landscape and it’s tied into so much else that makes the state special.”
That’s why Ross and Shumlin were joined by officials from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and its Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation and the Agency of Commerce and Community Development and its Department of Tourism and Marketing.
“Vermont is on the cutting edge of a national movement of rural renewal,” said Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development. “ We’r e modeling something here that’s sustainable and resilient.”
Five years ago, Costello’s organization spearheaded the Council on the Future of Vermont. That nonprofit, nonpartisan group held more than 100 local meetings in 2008 before unveiling the report “Imagining Vermont: Values and Vision for the Future” in 2009 and hosting an initial summit in 2010.
“We’re not interested in presenting a report and stepping away,” Costello said at the time. “When Vermonters have expressed their values, someone needs to say, ‘How do you build a plan that’s really going to change things?’”
Costello and his colleagues have since focused on what Vermonters who were surveyed spoke about most — the “working landscape.” Nearly 98 percent of residents polled said they valued woods and pastures more than any other of the state’s features.
Summit participants didn’t limit the term “working landscape” to milk or maple production but also included meat and microbreweries, woodenware and solar and wind energy. While they reported recent successes — half of the initial 30 Enterprise Initiative grantees surveyed estimate they’ll soon collectively employ up to 80 new workers — they also noted challenges, from the need for more streamlined regulations to more state financial support.
“We believe investing $3 million a year for five years would have a game-changing effect,” Costello said. Future of Vermont organizers hope their work will be the latest such effort to shape the state.
Some 85 years ago, the one-time Vermont Commission on Country Life, formed after the disastrous flood of 1927, funneled its discussions into a report that called for the creation of the state police and enlargement of the state Board of Education.
In 1968, the state’s first modern Democratic governor, Philip Hoff, headed the Vermont Planning Council, whose “Vision and Choice — Vermont’s Future” study helped spur the pioneering Act 250 land-use law.
In 1988, the state’s first female governor, Madeleine Kunin, created the Governor’s Commission on Vermont’s Future that sparked the Act 200 growth management law.
Shumlin has high hopes for the Working Lands initiative, which he said wasn’t simply about making money.
“It’s preserving Vermont quality of life and community,” the governor told the crowd. “We are just warming up, we are just figuring this out. The best ag and forest days are ahead of us, not behind us. We cannot let our foot off the pedal.”
Costello said, “We’re reseeding Vermont for the future.”