Nick Richardson: Rural communities are vital to our economic future

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In his State of the State, Governor Scott spoke about the demographic crisis that is creating a divide between the urbanized and rural areas of our state. At the Vermont Land Trust, it's a divide we see every day, with opportunities to work in the woods or on the farm becoming less profitable or desirable, and rural businesses falling on hard times.

Over the next five years we could witness the greatest intergenerational transfer of farmland ever seen in Vermont, exacerbating the demographic and affordability crisis. Rural communities and the working lands that support them are under threat and need our help.

However, there is reason for hope, and it starts with the entrepreneurs who are investing in rural Vermont today.

Take Hannah Sessions and Greg Bernhardt, who operate Blue Ledge Farm in Leicester, their award-winning goat dairy on 150 acres of conserved land. There, they milk 150 goats, pay livable wages, and keep Vermont (and the Vermont brand) at the leading edge of cheese-making worldwide.

Within the forestry sector VLT is working with seven owners of conserved land just south of the Canadian border in Montgomery to aggregate forest parcels and enroll them in voluntary carbon sequestration markets. For enhanced management of their forests — resulting in healthier forests and wildlife habitat — these landowners will now receive payment from those markets.

What can we do to support the successes like these? First, we can provide people with access to affordable farm- and forest-land. Second, we can help these folks succeed by providing business-planning tools and resources.

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But do young entrepreneurs even want to farm or work the land in Vermont? Yes, they do.

At VLT we maintain a list of over 300 farm-seekers across the northeast region who are looking to purchase conserved farmland in order to launch or grow a farm business. We match these seekers with farmers looking to retire or sell (many of whom have been the backbone of Vermont agriculture for decades). We do this work in partnership with the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and others, pairing our efforts with theirs to connect new farmers to business services, markets, and capital. We have completed 100 farm transfers over the past ten years and seek to do 100 more.

The economic benefits of this work are clear, particularly for rural communities. The environmental benefits are equally important. Keeping working lands in operation — as farms and forests, for example — is necessary for avoiding sprawl, protecting wildlife habitat, providing clean water, and making our landscape more resilient to climate-related disasters.

Two programs, VHCB and the Working Lands Enterprise Fund, are essential to addressing the affordability and demographic crisis facing rural Vermont. VHCB provides funding for land conservation, in addition to affordable housing, which helps farmers and forestland owners sell their development rights and reinvest that capital back in to their businesses. The Working Lands Enterprise Fund, which received $1.5 million last session, provides a flexible source of capital to farmers looking to sustain and grow their businesses. I urge the Legislature and Governor Scott to sustain and enhance these vital programs.

Vermont's farms and forests are not only our heritage, they are also our future. Their viability is inextricably linked to the health of our economy, our resilience to climate change, and our sense of place. Since 1977, the Vermont Land Trust has protected over 2,000 parcels of land, including more than 900 working farms, many thousands of acres of forestland, and numerous parcels of community lands. Those lands, and the vitality that springs from them, are essential to creating the future we want.

Nick Richardson is the president and CEO of the Vermont Land Trust.


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