1.29.2021 – The Working Lands Enterprise Initiative and Farm to School Programs

This was a rich week for the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee as we took testimony regarding some of the programs we consider our legacy.

Early in the week, we heard from folks who work on the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative. Working Lands was created in 2012 to increase investment in our agriculture and forestry sectors. It was based on the hard work of many people appointed by the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD) to the Working Landscape Council. The Council consisted of representatives from the full spectrum of farmers, processors, government officials, and forestry-related sectors. Also on the Council was Windham County’s own, Roger Allbee, who is the former Secretary of Agriculture and Paul Costello, the Executive Director of VCRD.

One of the results of their work was an important publication, “Vermont’s Working Landscape – investing in our farm and forest future”, which was “The Action Plan of the Vermont Working Landscape Partnership, September 2011.” The first few lines of the Executive Summary state “There is a tremendous opportunity for Vermont to build a farm and forest Renaissance as a foundation for the future of the land, culture, and economy of the state. At the same time, challenges facing farmers and forest products entrepreneurs mean that Vermont could lose the working landscape in a generation. We are at a tipping point and must make a choice.”

The Council conducted a survey and one of the striking results was the following: “Over 97 percent of Vermonters polled endorsed the value of the working landscape as key to our future.”

Getting Act 142 over the finish line was not easy in 2012 and it was interesting to observe those who fought passage later take credit for it. Ultimately it did pass and our working lands entrepreneurs who have taken advantage of the program have greatly benefited from it. The original Action Plan is still available at Working Landscape Action Plan: Investing in our Farm and Forest Future – 2012 | vtrural.org.

At our recent hearing, we heard from many of the state officials that work on or with the Working Lands Enterprise Board (WLEB) but also from farmers and forestry entrepreneurs with boots on the ground. It is always gratifying to hear the stories of the folks who are intimately involved – how the grants have benefited them in terms of productivity, efficiency, and job creation, as well as the impact on other grant recipients and their larger community.

The first year of the program, if my memory serves me well, we were able to find $1.475 million for WLEB to distribute. The amount of money has varied over the years, but we were excited to hear the governor ask that $3 million from one-time money be dedicated to the program for FY2022. This is in addition to the amount in the base budget of $594,000. We have always hoped to get WLEB in the governor’s base budget (meaning it will be there year after year and not depend on one-time money), but so far that has eluded us.

What was interesting is that many of our witnesses ended up doing very well as a result of changes they made to “pivot”. Some folks decided to develop or expand their on-line presence, and their businesses grew by 110 – 198%. A beef farmer used his grant to buy a refrigerated delivery truck and has not only hired on more help, but now has partnerships with other businesses (farms, processors, bakers, and charcuterie producers) in the area to deliver their products. A berry grower used his grant to expand production (more berry bushes), aggregation, and co-packing capacity. He also invested in more sorting and packing equipment. The good news is that most of the people who talked with us admitted that initially the pandemic threw them for a loop, but once they got some technical assistance were able to make some changes and actually improve their business. Who was it that said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”? (Answer – Winston Churchill).

Another one of our legacy programs is Farm to School (F2S). More important than ever because of the pandemic, F2S has been instrumental in working with partners to ensure that Vermont’s school children have been well-nourished. The F2S Network coordinator, Betsy Rosenbluth, who is also Director of Vermont FEED (Food Education Every Day), was quick to credit the Agencies of Agriculture, Food, and Markets and Education with quickly directing COVID funds to school nutrition. Coronavirus Relief Funding was used to cover added costs of supplies and equipment to provide “adequate outdoor learning spaces and healthy meals and snacks.”

The folks in the Farm to School Network would like us to fund the Farm to School and Early Childhood grants program at a higher amount than we have done in the past. The goal is to have the majority of Vermont school districts participating in the program.

The incredibly good thing about the F2S program is that it is a multiple win. More local, nutritious food is purchased by our school, which is a boost for our farmers. Every $1.00 spent on local food adds $1.60 to Vermont’s economy. Our children learn to cook and try new foods, especially vegetables, through taste tests and competitions and they then ask to have more fruits and vegetables in their diets, which improves their health. This cuts down on obesity, which can have later negative health effects. When children are better nourished, their learning is improved and as a result, our education dollars are more cost-effectively spent. That’s at least six wins!

We were fortunate to have several students from Harwood Union High School who all spoke about how important the Farm to School Program has been to them. They have even formed a F2S Club and have formed a community around local eating. More locally, Harley Sterling, the School Nutrition Director for the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union told us how the grant he received helped the kids “weather the storm” the pandemic has brought. At the Westminster Elementary School, they have a garden and chickens and hope, someday, to build a barn.

Both of these programs have had a strong positive effect in all of Vermont’s fourteen counties. They were meant to improve our lives through rural economic development and better nutrition for our children, who are key to our future.