Tim Calabro photo
Reps. Kenneth Atkins, D-Winooski, left, and Larry Townsend, D-Randolph, confer during a recess of the Legislature on Saturday in Montpelier.
Editor’s note: In the coming weeks, we’ll take a look back at what made it, what didn’t, and why it matters to you. For more analysis on the session that was, visit us at www.vermontpressbureau.com.
By PETER HIRSCHFELD
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU
MONTPELIER — The idea wasn’t new: Energize a flagging agriculture sector by treating farm-based enterprises like dot.com startups.
But backers of the “working lands” program proposed at the outset of the 2012 session asked for more than just the feel-good policy language.
They wanted money — $3 million, to be precise.
“We’re accustomed to investing resources in traditional industry in this building, but we haven’t always been willing to give the same treatment to our farms,” said Rep. Will Stevens, a Shoreham independent.
Working lands didn’t end up getting the full request. But the $1.17 million to which House and Senate lawmakers finally agreed is being viewed as a victory for a new program that will now be in line annually new for additional appropriations.
About $200,000 will be used to fund two new jobs at the Agency of Agriculture, including one designed specifically to help farm and forest-based businesses navigate complex regulations and develop sound business plans.
The remaining $1 million will fund grants and loans for a range of agricultural businesses.
“It could be access to capital for folks in that phase of development where all they need is that one-time infusion of money to start seeing exponential growth, to a more established operation that’s ready to grow but needs money for capital improvements,” Stevens says.
Stevens said the fund will also support the purchase of major infrastructure — like the food venture center in Hardwick — that will benefit a diverse cross section of producers and processors.
“The idea here is to make sure that in 50 years, Vermont still looks like Vermont, and we still have land that people can find a profit in,” Stevens said.
The proposal initially faced opposition from the Shumlin administration. Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding said that while he supported the plan in concept, Vermont could ill-afford to invest general fund dollars in new programs.
Gov. Peter Shumlin came around, however, and said in his adjournment address last Saturday that the working lands bill would play a critical role in realizing the “renaissance in agriculture” he’s been promising since his election.
“It will help us to ensure we deliver on the promise of a renaissance in agriculture ... to ensure our best agriculture days are ahead of us, not behind us,” Shumlin said.
A controversy over proposed maple legislation came out of nowhere in late March and, for a time, stole the media spotlight. The legislation — which passed the Senate unanimously in a voice vote — would have done away with the decades-old maple syrup grading system that has given rise to terms like “fancy” and “medium amber.”
Instead of selling jugs labeled “Vermont Grade A Fancy,” sugar makers would be required to use the term “Golden Delicate.” “Grade A Medium Amber” would become “Amber Rich.” “Grade A Dark Amber?” How about “Dark Robust” instead. And so-called “Vermont Grade B” would be supplanted by “Very Dark Strong.”
But the nomenclature didn’t sit well with everyone. Rutland County sugar makers in particular were unimpressed by the proposal, and, having missed the chance to register their discontent in the Senate, made their feelings known to the House.
State officials were all for the change.
Henry Marckres, consumer protection chief and maple specialist at the Agency of Agriculture, said it would unify the grading system across the United States and Canada, and eliminate the consumer confusion caused by the use of different grade names in different states and provinces.
“It’s an international business these days and many companies buying bulk syrup have to compete worldwide,” Marckres said. “It’s confusing for people, especially for folks in other countries that don’t necessarily understand maple. They ask, why is Canada selling us extra light,’ you’re selling us ‘fancy’ and New York is selling us ‘light?’ It’s all the same grade, but they don’t know that.”
The legislation was attached to a wide-ranging agriculture bill that ultimately fell by the wayside when House and Senate lawmakers were unable to come to a deal.MORE IN Vermont NewsMONTPELIER — Ask Peter Shumlin to track the origins of his fiscal policy, and he’ll tell you... Full StoryPLAINFIELD — Goddard College summoned up a bit of its past while keeping an eye on the future... Full StoryPLAINFIELD — Goddard College summoned up a bit of its past while keeping an eye on the... Full Story
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