Costello: Investment in landscape crucial

Investing in Vermont’s Working Landscape

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Paul Costello, executive director, Vermont Council on Rural Development.

In early December over 300 farmers and foresters, policy and nonprofit leaders, innovative entrepreneurs, business owners and advocates, packed the State House, attracted by the prospect of a new approach to saving Vermont’s Working Landscape.

Studies like the recent findings of the Council on the Future of Vermont show that Vermonters rank the working landscape as a preeminent value, one essential to us as a people, a reflection of our heritage, and a key foundation for our future. We celebrate the working landscape as central to Vermont’s brand identity and as the critical asset of tourism. It’s the foundation for our quality of life and the reason why many of us choose to live here.

Vermont’s working landscape is primarily the legacy of the economic decisions, investments, risk and sweat equity of generations of farm and forest landowners. It’s the compendium of their practical decisions that have produced the historic pattern of farms, forests, and compact communities that Vermonters value today.

In reviewing the past 40 years of policy related to agriculture and forestry in Vermont a clear pattern emerges. Each commission, each study, calls for diversification and value-added development. However, as a state and as a people we have not invested in the working landscape commensurate with its importance to us. We haven’t confronted the key challenges or completely understood the potential return on investment in supporting agricultural and forest enterprises to keep the Vermont we so cherish.

We have this perpetual policy discourse on the working landscape because the land in Vermont is crucial to who we are, what attracts us here, and how our economy works. But, as we talk about it, farms go out of business and forests are broken up for house lots, estates, or commercial developments that no longer support working enterprises on the land.

We face a quiet crisis that will end the working landscape as we have known it. It’s time to act.

We have a huge opportunity to advance the growth of the local foods movement and agricultural innovation, and to engage the energies of a new generation of working landscape entrepreneurs.

The Vermont Working Landscape Steering Committee founded by the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD), has produced a five point Action Plan that advocates for new working landscape policy and investment:

A. Build a Major Campaign to Celebrate the Distinctiveness of the Working Landscape that is Vermont.
B. Target Strategic Investment through a Vermont Agriculture and Forest Products Development Corporation.
C. Designate and Support “Working Lands.”
D. Develop Tax Revenue to Support Working Landscape Enterprise Development and Conservation.
E. Build a State Planning Office and Activate the Development Cabinet

At the State House Summit VCRD launched the “Vermont Working Landscape Partnership” to spearhead a movement to implement these policies and investments to ensure the vitality of Vermont’s working landscape for the next generation. So many of the groups represented that day are already striving to achieve this goal. The Partnership is in place to help galvanize their efforts.

Over 200 individuals and organizations are already signed on to support the Action Plan above. To see their names, learn more about the Plan, and add your voice to this rapidly growing Partnership, visit the VCRD website at www.vtrural.org.

It’s time we speak with one voice about what we are for. We have the opportunity in Vermont to build a reputation as the friendliest state in the nation to businesses that connect with our environmental aspirations and values—especially those that can act as long-term stewards of Vermont’s working landscape. We can claim national leadership as the local foods state, agriculture innovation state, and value-added forest products state. We can claim it, and then we can make it so.

No one left the Summit thinking this will happen overnight. VCRD is committed to helping the Partnership build support over the next year. Add your voice, talk to others, and help us keep the landscape working for all of us.

Comments

  1. And Vermont’s population grew by 17,000 people during the last decade! This is the equivalent of Barre and Montpelier’s population combined. That certainly is impacting the working landscape of the part of the state where I live in Orange County. Isn’t it time that we acknowledge that factor in the equation?

  2. December 11, 2010

    Paul Costello, Executive Director
    Vermont Council on Rural Development
    P.O. Box 1384
    Montpelier, VT 05601

    Dear Paul:

    I admire your repeated admonitions to attendees of the VCRD Ag Summit that the time for talking is past and that it is now time for action.

    But if it is truly time to act, then it is imperative to distinguish normative economics from evidence-seeking, data-based economics. “The FMMO price of milk should be adjusted to reflect regional costs to give dairy farmers a higher price and to save the family farm” is a normative statement making several subjective judgments: that a higher [unquantified] price will save farmers, that farmers should receive a higher price for any level of production, that it is necessary for Vermont farmers to make milk, that all dairy farms regardless of size and environmental impact should be saved and even—dare I say it—that there is an economic basis for Vermont dairy farms to exist. I heard three other statements at the summit that need real world justification, the first of which was that “we are not giving up on conventional dairy.”

    The enthusiasm was palpable in that room for investing capital in Vermont’s agricultural sector to save it from destruction. Yet I heard no value proposition as justification for supporting conventional Vermont dairy or exactly what an investment of $15-20M in public or private capital would do. Would $15-20M put conventional dairy on a path to profitability? Would it even arrest its slide into oblivion? Farmers receive about $16-18/cwt for a product that costs the majority of them $20-25/cwt to make and in 2009 they lost as an industry $200M; have we acknowledged that the FMMO price will surely not rise above Vermont’s cost or articulated a business model for making conventional dairy farms cash-flow positive that does not pollute the lake?

    The second statement was that a tax, perhaps a 2% rise in the sales or meals and rooms tax, should be levied to help save Vermont farms because farms are a “common good.” Putting momentarily aside that this proposition is arguable, it bears noting that something has been consistently wrong over the last fifty to seventy-five years with public policies designed to save farms. Why exactly have these efforts failed? I submit that virtually all public policy actions, be they tax abatements and/or exemptions, cost sharing for ditches, fencing or manure digesters, outright cash disbursements or even university extension studies in agronomy and farm methodology have been directed at lowering farm costs so farmers can maintain or boost milk production. Virtually all. Yet, without doubt, dairy’s two most resilient and potent problems are over production and falling consumer demand the first of which subsidization directly exacerbates and the second it willfully flouts. Empirically, some agent(s) has caused Vermont farms to shrink from 11,200 in 1947 to 1,000 today and even the Farm Bureau is now admitting that over production is the main driver of low milk prices. Yet, we have seen no probing analysis of what exactly that agent is or what, if anything, Vermont can do to neutralize it. Without the answers to these questions, is it prudent to state that “we are not giving up on conventional dairy farming” if the goal is to make the land “work?”

    The third statement was that Vermont must, at all costs, continue the Current Use Program.

    Subsidization comes in many forms, some deeply entrenched, some outright sacred and some whose original purpose is obscured by venerable tradition. But surely at some point it becomes necessary to ask if subsidization, including farming’s de facto immunity to state and federal clean water statutes, Vermont’s Current Use Program, Vermont’s Housing and Conservation Board and Vermont’s Land Trust are actually saving farms when, in the face of ample evidence, they clearly are not. Is it time for that review?

    To make Vermont’s landscape “work” farmers must make a product that sells for more than it costs to make. Vermont cannot affect the price of commodity milk because neither the supply or the price are controlled here and because milk is made in surplus far more cheaply elsewhere. Farm costs are already at rock bottom but still $8-10/cwt below price. Subsidization for that same reason cannot save Vermont’s conventional dairies because there isn’t enough money in the local economy to make up the difference between price and cost. Second, if you give them money, conventional farmers deploy free cash to add capacity, driving prices down. Third, subsidization is directed proportionately to the largest farms, the ones that produce the most milk, driving prices down. And finally, subsidization provides consumers an irresistible alternative to higher priced non-polluting organic milk. Subsidization, in a word, is counterproductive. We are actually paying farmers to make their desperate condition worse.

    I am a farm advocate and I envisage a Vermont farm sector that makes a profit producing milk for local consumption (or for export to upscale urban grocers) but that does not pollute the lake. For this to happen, the price of milk must more than double. Perhaps rather than granting subsidies to the owners of farmland for the production of conventional milk for which there is no market and which empirically deposits its wastes in the lake, the CUP, VHCB and VLT should bestow benefits selectively upon just those farmers who have demonstrated a commitment to making a profit producing food for local consumption and protecting the quality of Vermont’s waters. If, in other words, the farmers make a profit, they will keep the landscape “working.”

    Sincerely yours,

    James H. Maroney, Jr.
    /jm
    cc: Secretary of Agriculture Designate Chuck Ross
    Secretary of Commerce Designate Lawrence Miller
    Greg Brown
    Vermont House and Senate Agriculture Committees

  3. Duncan Kilmartin :

    Instead of devoting so much energy to investing in a landscape, and adding the dehumanizing term “working” to the generations of farmers and forest workers who have invested their families, their capital and labor a/k/a “sweat equity, why not start devoting energy and resources to the Vermont citizens who work and invest in agriculture and forests, and target those who actually do it for Vermonters and Vermont families instead of the large out of state foundations and multinational corporations, e.g VLT, the Plum Group that bought out Merck at a four hundred percent profit to Merck, etc.

    If our working landscape programs of the past have not created the nirvana promised, might it be time to ask if our past programs, with all their claimed benefits, have not caused or been a contributing cause to the demise of the working landscape lamented above.

    Years ago, Marcellus Parsons, broadcasting live one lovely summer evening from Lucien Whitehill’s bucolic farm in Morgan, waxed eloquent about the views and the landscape so carefully tended by the Whitehills for five generations.

    Lucien, in his NEK twang said, “Marcellus, you know a cup of hot soup in February goes a lot further than the view”.

    Leadership to create a vibrant and sustainable rural economy should not come from the activities and groups that Paul C. is recommending…their families, lives and fortunes are not at stake. It should come from those who are working the landscape and taking the daily risks that the market and environment imposes on them.

    Otherwise, the working landscape is nothing more than a large plantation with indentured servants working for their landlords, who visit from time to time to refresh and recreate themselves on the plantation. Vermont, and the NEK in particular, deserve better than that.

    Rep. Duncan Kilmartin, Orleans-2.

  4. Bill Bevans :

    Thank you, Paul, for your tireless leadership in finding “a new approach to saving Vermont’s Working Landscape.”

    “Never linger in the rut of results.” René Char

    Bill Bevans
    CoachWorks Farm

  5. T. A. Hoppe :

    The Vermont legislature vote to legalize the growing of hemp. Here is a crop that the US imports, its legal to grow n Vermont, has a greater crop value than cow corn, and yet not one farmers are growing it or plan to anytime soon. Why, and more to the point why isn’t Paul Costello addressing the issue? The 5 point “Action Plan” he outlines above isn’t worth lining a litter box with.
    The answer to the question, why are no Vermont farmers planning on growing hemp is because there are still federal laws on the books that prohibit its cultivation. The Vermont Council on Rural Development is charge with coordinating federal and state farm policy. Studies about help production offer two points of view: Anti-drug activists argue that low or lack of expected profitability from hemp production would not compensate for the additional costs they believe would come with legalization, Hemp proponents counter that projected profitability has been dampened by “institutional” estimates that are static and shortsighted. They argue that industrial hemp could be profitable if allowed to fully develop as a commercial industry.
    The VCRD has concluded that we in Vermont are losing our ‘working landscape.’ Subsidies for farms are not the answer. Farmers need a crop that will provide an income. Do you know that that hemp protein is the greatest source of protein in not only the plant kingdom, but from any source as well. Hemp protein has all the essential amino and fatty acids that we need to survive. It can be use for its oil, fiber, and seed.
    VCRD is the organization that needs to take the lead. The fact is the Obama administration will probably not prosecute a farm who grows hemp, but what farmer is going to risk his land doing so. As long as the federal laws at in place we need the State to take the lead. This is a ‘states rights’ issue and needs to be seen as such. VCRD has a role in the coordination of a State plan and bringing the Vermont delegation on-board to challenge the
    Federal restriction. We have the right Governor and federal respresentaives to make this happen. What’s needed is a vocal leadership from the groups like Vermont Council on Rural Development.

  6. T. A. Hoppe :

    Edited
    The Vermont legislature already voted to legalize the growing of hemp. Here is a crop that the US imports, its legal to grow n Vermont, has a greater crop value than cow corn, and yet not one farmers are growing it or plan to anytime soon. Why, and more to the point why isn’t Paul Costello addressing the issue? The 5 point “Action Plan” he outlines above isn’t worth lining a litter box with.
    The answer to the question, why are no Vermont farmers planning on growing hemp is because there are still federal laws on the books that prohibit its cultivation. The Vermont Council on Rural Development is charge with coordinating federal and state farm policy. Studies about help production offer two points of view: Anti-drug activists argue that low or lack of expected profitability from hemp production would not compensate for the additional costs they believe would come with legalization, Hemp proponents counter that projected profitability has been dampened by “institutional” estimates that are static and shortsighted. They argue that industrial hemp could be profitable if allowed to fully develop as a commercial industry.
    The VCRD has concluded that we in Vermont are losing our ‘working landscape.’ Subsidies for farms are not the answer. Farmers need a crop that will provide an income. Do you know that that hemp protein is the greatest source of protein in not only the plant kingdom, but from any source as well. Hemp protein has all the essential amino and fatty acids that we need to survive. It can be use for its oil, fiber, and seed.
    VCRD is the organization that needs to take a leadership role in this effort. The fact is the Obama administration will probably not prosecute a farm who grows hemp, but what farmer is going to risk his land doing so. As long as the federal laws at in place the State must be willing for fight for its farmers. This is a ‘states rights’ issue, and needs to be seen as such. Hemp is not a drug, and farmers have a right to grow it under Vermont law. VCRD has a role in the coordination of a State plan and bringing the Vermont delegation on-board to challenge the federal restriction. We have the right Governor and federal representaives to make this happen. What’s needed is a vocal leadership from the groups like Vermont Council on Rural Development.

  7. Thank you to All Vermonters working in this effort of solidarity to recognize “The Commons”, not just in the physical sense but also within values! The one word I looked for, through-out your article, is TRUST. Trusts are THE most important tool we have to claim this heritage with in our present system. We already have great Trusts working in Vermont that lower housing costs and conserve lands, these are templates, we need to not only utilize, but to innovate providing for the unique needs of our communities. The other key component is creating and implementing an EDAP, which the Transition Towns initiative is working on. This is our Transitional Evolution unfolding.
    -VT4Evolution

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