By Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts and Commerce Secretary Lindsay Kurrle
When the pandemic arrived on our doorstep, life changed profoundly. Our daily routine was disrupted, from home to school, office to farm. We even had to learn how to play differently. We also found that our food system was fragile.
We experienced the vulnerability of our national approach to feeding Americans. Supply chain issues caused shelves to empty in many supermarkets; fortunately, many Vermonters were able to turn to local farmers or producers. Farmstands, farmers markets, home delivery, community supported agriculture and a robust local food network grew to be even more important sources of food, throughout the year.
It is now time to build upon those lessons, to prioritize strengthening Vermont’s farm and food-based economy. The Governor’s budget proposes that the Legislature fund initiatives to grow our food system and protect the most vulnerable. Many of these needs were outlined by the Governor’s Commission on the Future of Agriculture, a group of citizens tasked to work with the Agencies of Agriculture and Commerce to ensure the viability and adaptability of Vermont’s agriculture and food system. Over the next few weeks, the Vermont Legislature will consider major issues effecting agriculture in Vermont. At the same time, a landslide of federal funding has created once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to affect change.
Workers are key to providing food to homes, restaurants, schools, and institutions. We have heard from many in the food system that there is a tremendous need for help. The Governor has proposed investing $140 million dollars in workforce development to help our farms and food companies attract and retain employees.
Continued support for the Capital Investment Program will make food production more affordable while growing our farm economy. The Governor’s Commission on the Future of Agriculture highlighted the need for better infrastructure so farmers could access more and bigger markets. The Governor has proposed investing $50 million dollars in “transformational projects” to improve and build infrastructure that will provide communities with the opportunity to attract and retain food businesses, while creating jobs and providing more local food.
The Working Lands program is a long-standing investment that is performing well, and Governor Scott has proposed nearly doubling the budget so Vermonters who make their living off the land can make critical investments to enable them to provide local food or products.
Covid-19 has also forced many businesses to take on more debt. Under the Governor’s budget a $20 million dollar Forgivable Loan Recovery Program would be created. This funding will be used to create a short-term forgivable loan program for working capital and operational needs. This solution will help fill in the gaps for food producers and farmers so they can produce food for our communities without interruption.
We also must protect those who are in need. Under the Governor’s proposal, $1.5 million dollars would go to Vermonters Feeding Vermonters, a program of the Vermont Foodbank focused on expanding access to local food to low-income Vermonters while supporting local farmers. This commitment to feeding Vermonters also extends $200,000 to the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont for food security and farm viability programs.
The Governor’s proposed budget also includes dollars to define the evolving Vermont brand. Vermonters produce some of the highest quality products in the country, and this effort would provide a fresh foundation to market and grow our farm and food economy.
The pandemic has exposed the fragility of the country’s food system. We cannot depend on faraway places to feed us. All the proposals at hand help hard working Vermonters by making it more affordable to access the food we need to live, work, eat and play in the Green Mountain State. Vermont’s story is strong, but it needs support. Now is the time to capitalize and transform agriculture. Investing in agriculture improves the economy of rural Vermont, makes our state more livable, and provides nutritious food for all Vermonters.