State creates $1M grant fund for food and forestry firms

MIDDLEBURY — State officials late last week announced that they are soliciting applications from entrepreneurs who want a portion of nearly $1 million in grant funds set aside for food and forestry businesses.
Grants ranging from $3,000 to $100,000 will be awarded later this winter by Vermont’s Working Lands Enterprise Board from a $986,5000 fund designed to fuel the Green Mountain State’s economy and build its local food system while maintaining its open lands and natural vistas.
“Vermont’s working landscape captures Vermont’s heritage, its culture, and its people,” the board’s chair, Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross, said in a press release issued in conjunction with the formal announcement of the fund in Middlebury on Thursday. “It provides tens of thousands of jobs and contributes greater than 15 percent to Vermont’s Gross Domestic Product. Today’s announcement represents the state of Vermont’s investment in preserving and enhancing Vermont’s working lands.”
The announcement was made during Addison County’s second annual Financing the Working Landscape conference at the American Legion in Middlebury. Hosted by the Addison County Relocalization Network, the Addison County Economic Development Commission and the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, the conference featured more than a hundred budding young entrepreneurs and seasoned economic advisors and investors.
Attendees had spent the morning discussing strategies to finance entrepreneurial projects in food, agriculture and forestry. The board made the announcement during luncheon, which boasted an all-local menu prepared by area high school students from the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center.
The Working Lands Enterprise Board and the Working Landscape Enterprise Fund were created by Act 142, signed by Gov. Shumlin last May. The million-dollar amount was unknown until last Thursday; state officials said that it was allocated through the General Fund.
“(The fund provides) the opportunity to either jump-start new businesses or help businesses that are growing that need the capital to make it to that next level,” Colleen Leonard, Agricultural Policy Administrator of the Agency of Agriculture, told the Independent. “It’s a huge opportunity to connect producers with resources.”
Act 142 also represents the first time the state offices that oversee forestry and agriculture have come together on the same investment platform, said Mike Snyder, director of the Department of Forestry.
When it comes to investing in Vermont’s natural resources, both the forestry and agriculture sectors stand to gain from innovative business initiatives. Seventy-five percent of the Green Mountain State is used for forestry and 20 percent for agriculture, according to the act, marking the two industries as the “backbone” of Vermont’s working landscape. The 2012 Legislature found that 97 percent of Vermonters valued the working landscape.
“Why wouldn’t we want to invest in that excitement as a state when philanthropic folks are already lining up, foundations are lining up, and the private sector’s lining up?” said Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, the lead sponsor of the bill. He said it was an “easy sell” for him to take the lead on the initiative.
“I don’t want to be here in 20 or 30 years saying, ‘What happened? What could we have done? Why don’t we have farms?’” Stevens said.
For Stevens, who for 31 years has owned Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham with his wife Judy, investing in Vermont’s working landscape is more than just good public policy — it is also personal.
“It’s from the heart,” he said.
Stevens believes that Vermont is uniquely situated to use its brand, its workforce, and its natural resources to stimulate genuine innovation in local and statewide economies.
“When I think about sustainable economic development, the question comes back to, what can we do that no one else can do?” he said
Working Lands Enterprise Fund grants will be made in three investment areas: Enterprise Investments, Working Lands Service Provider Grants and Capital and Infrastructure Investments. Applications are due in January, February or March of next year depending on the type of grant. Awards will be made in April.
More information about the grant application process is available at www.vermontworkinglands.org.
Stevens noted that tax incentives favored by New York and New Hampshire to encourage local sustainable business are something that fit those states, but may not have worked as well in Vermont. Providing direct grants to encourage businesses working on the land should prove a good model for supporting sustainable economic development in Vermont, he said.
“Nobody can do it better than we can,” Stevens said.
Those interested in applying for a Working Lands Enterprise Initiative grant may attend a seminar with the grantors this Tuesday or Thursday to learn more about the grant application process. The informational session will offer tips that can be used when applying. Sessions are being offered as a webinar, and at locations throughout the state with on-site facilitators to help field questions.
The agenda for each sessions is:
•  Background and purpose of the Working Lands initiative.
•  The three investment areas of the initiative (Overview of Request for Proposals).
•  Tips on filling out the application (Goals, Performance Measures and Outcomes).
•  Dates, deadlines and key contacts.
•  Q & A.
The informational sessions for applicants will take place on Tuesday, Dec. 4, and Thursday, Dec. 6, 4:30-6 p.m. Those who want to learn more about the application process, and/or have questions about applying, can either log in from any computer, (nothing will be downloaded, but Flash is required on a PC or Mac) or attend in person at six sites around the state (the closest to Addison County is in Rutland, for exact locations go to www.vermontworkinglands.com/webinar.html).
To login in to the webinar, go to www.vermontworkinglands.com/webinar.html.
Link to webinar login will be live 10 minutes prior to webinar start time
You will need speakers on your computer in order to hear the webinar presentation

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