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Investing in the Future of our Working Lands, and the Communities that Depend on Them

Photo: Joanne Waszny

By Charlie Hancock, CHC Board Chair

The advent of summer brings many things that make our corner of the world special. Summer also heralds the closing of the Legislative session each year, and this year we had a lot to celebrate: The legislative session in Vermont ended with a $10,840,840 FY20 budget for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, which is $1 million more than proposed by the Governor, as well as a one-time allocation of $500,000 to VHCB for “legacy land projects.” The budget also included: $75,000 to VHCB for federal rural development grant writing assistance; $100,000 to the Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collaborative; $594,000 to the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative (WLEI) and a one-time investment of $1 million for grants to be awarded including $500,000 to dairy farms to assist with diversification and/or practices that improve soil health and water quality; as well as $120,000 directed to logger safety and value-added products initiatives. A big shout out and thanks to all the local legislators that supported conservation of our working lands, as well as support for our working lands economy! As a member of the Working Lands Enterprise Board, I’d like to take the opportunity to talk a little more about the WLEI, and why it’s important.

So what is it? The Working Lands Enterprise Initiative (signed into law in 2012) supports innovative entrepreneurs at the forefront of Vermont’s Working Lands economy (principally the agricultural and forest products sectors) through technical and financial assistance to help growing businesses thrive. The program is made possible through the support of the state legislature, multiple state organizations and public/private donors. The goals of the program are to stimulate a concerted economic development effort on behalf of Vermont’s agriculture and forest product sectors by systematically advancing entrepreneurism, business development, and job creation; to increase the value of Vermont’s raw and value-added products through the development of in-state and export markets; to attract a new generation of entrepreneurs to Vermont’s farm, food system, forest, and value-added chain by facilitating more affordable access to the working landscape; and to increase the amount of state investment in working lands enterprises, particularly when it leverages private and philanthropic funds.

The program operates on six principles of change that strive to help sustain, grow, and diversify these key sectors:

Access to Capital—the ability of an enterprise to secure the right match of capital to meet its financing needs for its stage of growth and scale.

Technical Assistance—the availability of services to develop business plans, identify risk management strategies, and implement financial management systems, as well as provide topic, product, and process expertise.

Workforce Development—access to training that allows Vermonters who want to work in the working lands sector - and by extension, the employers they choose - to be at a world class level.

Smart Policy—rules and statutes that optimize the agricultural and forest use of Vermont lands, while protecting human, environmental and animal health.

Value Chain and Sector Collaboration—strengthening relationships between different actors along the chain, as well as across industry sectors, that strengthen the system as a whole.

Public Awareness—communities' understanding of, and support for, the businesses and organizations that contribute to our working landscape.

Since the program passed through the legislature in 2012, the program has distributed over $5.3 million in Working Lands Funds across all 14 counties of the state, supporting over 185 Agriculture and Forestry Projects. The program has also leveraged an additional $10 million in Working Land Funds, and made investments to grantees that resulted in the creation of over 500 jobs, with salary revenues of over $31 million. I would challenge anyone to identify any other program at either the state or federal level that can boast such significant impacts. As the Governor said at this year’s grant awards celebration, the level of economic development and job creation for every dollar invested through the program is unmatched, anywhere. So, thanks again to everyone who supported the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative this year, and please continue to advocate for this amazing program in the future.