The Future of Vermont’s Working Landscape is New Farmers

New farmers will play a lead role in preserving the integrity of Vermont’s future working landscape.

On Friday I joined about 300 other stakeholders at the Vermont State House for the Summit on the Future of Vermont’s Working Landscape.  The meeting was led by Paul Costello and the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD), a neutral, non-partisan organization whose mission is to “bring Vermonters together across political lines and organizational boundaries to advance rural community development across the state.”

Engaged citizens listen closely to panelists at the Summit

In 2007 VCRD formed the Council on the Future of Vermont to initiate a massive public engagement campaign, including 14 public hearings by county, over 90 focus groups, 300 interviews with state agencies and NGO personnel, online comment forums, follow up surveys from the UVM Center for Rural Studies, among other forums where thousands of citizens could comment on the values they hold and the visions they share.  In 2009 the Council published “Imagining Vermont: Values and Vision for the Future,” a report summarizing the views that were expressed.

The Summit on the Future of Vermont’s Working Landscape was designed to be a follow-up to one of the Council’s most significant findings:  “Overwhelmingly, Vermonters are united in support of the state’s agriculture and working landscape.”

What can we do moving forward?

Governor-elect Shumlin proposed that “…working together with young farmers to get them the land and the opportunities they need to succeed” is one way to strengthen Vermont agriculture.  “There are more young farmers in Vermont who want to succeed than we’ve seen in a long time, and that’s such great news, so what are we going to do for them?  Well, …let’s stop slashing VHCB and start rebuilding VHCB!”   Hefty applause rang loudly throughout the house chamber after this comment was made.

When asked by panel moderator Chris Graff what the working landscape will look like in 20 years from now, dairy farmer Amanda St. Pierre shared her optimistic vision, “I see prosperity, I see diversity, I see change, and I see a lot of young farmers coming back or staying on their family farm, which needs to happen if we are going to have a dairy industry in Vermont.”

Gil Livingston, president of the Vermont Land Trust spoke about conservation’s role in making farms more affordable for junior generation farmers.  “The second principle function of land conservation in Vermont is to provide affordable [farm] access for new enterprises.”

According to Livingston, one-third of farm conservation easements in VT are placed at the point of land and asset transition between junior and senior generations, which enables younger generation farmers to acquire farms that are otherwise out of reach.   These transactions can take place either within the family or outside of it.

Secretary of Agriculture Designee Chuck Ross included mention of new farmers in his message about reasons for hope in Vermont’s working landscape.  “There’s a new agricultural renaissance happening that is fueled by young people entering the field of agriculture across the state.  They are educated, their committed, and they’re dedicated.”

Ross went on to conclude, “If we are really going to protect what we claim to be valuable, which I believe is a reflection of the soul of who we are as a state,  and that is our working landscape—we’re going to need to think strategically, we’re going to need to be smart, innovative and responsive to the marketplace.  But most importantly we are going to need to work together…we’re going to need to come together as Vermonters to make some difficult decisions, to find some difficult compromises, to seize the opportunities that are before us, and to promote and support that which we value—our working landscape and the people who work on it.”

VCRD has asked all stakeholders in the working landscape to sign the Vermont Working Landscape Partnership, which will advance an Action Plan Platform to support local agriculture and forestry, to support farm and forest entrepreneurs, and to conserve Vermont’s Working Landscape for the next generation.

The Action Plan, as one might notice, is still broadly focused.  To new farmer and forester readers of this blog, what are the specific limitations you face, and what specific steps can the VT Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets, the VT legislature, or other agricultural and forestry support organizations take to improve your ability to manage economically viable enterprises, preserve and improve the natural resources on which they depend, and enliven your communities?

Our door is always open and we are always interested to hear your views.

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About Ben Waterman

Ben writes about land access, tenure, and stewardship issues that are relevant to new farmers in Vermont. He coordinates the Land Access Program at UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture: http://www.uvm.edu/sustainableagriculture/?Page=begland.html=
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