The Working Lands Enterprise Bill (H.496) is being considered by the Senate. The Senate Agriculture Committee discussed the bill; took testimony from the Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets, Chuck Ross; and decided to do a strike all amendment, attaching their version of the bill.
It went to Senate Appropriations where they decided not to attach any specific funding. The House set aside $2.1 million for this important investment in our agriculture and forest products sectors. The Senate Agriculture Committee’s version called for $1.625 million, but Senate Appropriations decided to let the funding piece be decided in the Budget Bill conference committee.
Recently, we have had increasingly optimistic indications from the Shumlin administration regarding their support for the bill. Originally, they were not supportive at all due, primarily, to budget constraints; now they are supportive but at a significantly lower funding amount than we deemed necessary to do a good job. We have never been in favor of creating the Working Lands Enterprise Board/Fund and positions to administer it with nothing to administer.
We understand that money is tight, but right now we have an important opportunity to make an investment in Vermont’s future. Vermont is way ahead of the curve when it comes to the local foods movement. The Vermont brand is synonymous with quality, healthfulness, and “local,” even in places as far away as New York City. People feel they are sharing in the Vermont experience when they buy Vermont products. Our regional market includes more than 50 million potential customers. We have great momentum in the local foods movement and want to keep that momentum going. We are even exporting cheese to France!
In 2009, the Legislature created the Farm to Plate Initiative (F2P). We contracted with the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, which did an inventory of all of the food-related resources in Vermont. With this information, we were able to identify our strong points, our shortcomings, and the gaps that needed to be filled. Money from the Jobs Bill, “earmark” funds for the Agriculture Innovation Center obtained by Sen. Leahy, and funding from the VT Farm Viability Program amounted to a $1.26 million investment of public funds that leveraged an additional $2.7 million in private investment for a total of $3.9 million. Exciting projects such as the Food Venture Center in Hardwick, the Mad River Food Hub in Waitsfield, and VT Smoke and Cure in Hinesburg have benefited from these funds.
The goals of F2P were based on the doubling of our consumption of Vermont produced/raised products over the next ten years. It was estimated that we could create 1500 jobs, increase our economic output, and put more healthy Vermont food on Vermont plates. In the two years since these investments were made, 500 jobs have been created (33% of the goal in 20% of the time) and 112 food-related establishments have opened. This is an impressive accomplishment and we are poised to do even more if we continue to invest.
During the seven weeks the House Agriculture Committee took testimony, we heard from 66 witnesses from the agriculture and forest products sectors. All were enthusiastic about the possibility of continued investment and potential growth.
Small businesses are the backbone of the Vermont economy. There are entrepreneurs who are eager to take the next step in growing their already existing businesses who need help with the regulatory process. H.496 dedicates money to the purpose of providing technical assistance, business planning, financial packaging, and other services that will help a company transition to the next stage of growth.
Money for small grants, as we made available with the Jobs Bill funding, is appropriated to “leverage private capital, jump-start new businesses, help beginning farmers access land, and support diversification projects that add value to farm and forest commodities.”
There is also money for infrastructure investments that include “creative diversification projects, value-added manufacturing, processing, storage, distribution, and collaborative ventures.” Examples include slaughterhouse processing expansion, food hubs in more regions of the state, lumber kiln drying facilities, and wood pellet plants.
When Governor Shumlin took office, we were very proud that he included an Agricultural Renaissance as one of his top five priorities. The Working Lands Enterprise Bill continues the investment in Vermont and keeps that dream alive.
On another subject, on April 12, 350-400 people came to the State House for the public hearing on H.722, an act relating to the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering. All 112 who testified were in favor of labeling, citing health reasons, concern for the environment, and a desire to know what they are putting in their bodies. The House Agriculture Committee has decided to continue work on H.722 and, if there is time, pass it out of committee. Our goal is to create a solid, defensible bill that will ultimately stand up to any challenges in court.