Working Lands Enterprise Initiative awards $750,000 in grants

Pair of Windham County projects among the 16 recipients

Vermonters in the forestry and agriculture sectors got a helping hand from the state last week.

The Working Lands Enterprise Initiative awarded 16 businesses a total of $750,000 in grant money at an event at Beaver Brook Farm in Marshfield, the last of nearly $1 million in the program's available grant money.

The program provides financial and technical support for Vermont's working landscape, which includes businesses, infrastructure, and products in the agriculture and forestry sectors of the economy.

“When we make things, we make Vermont,” said Michael Snyder, commissioner of the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.

The initiative began after Gov. Peter Shumlin signed Act 142 into law last year.

Shumlin, who attended the June 18 event, said a local land-use economy enhances the quality of life for Vermonters and the economic potential of the state.

“We are a family that grows what we eat and that know that when we do it, we've got the best food chain in the country ... that cuts what we build with and that knows that we therefore build extraordinary buildings, like this one, with the fruits of our labor,” Shumlin said inside the barn owned by Mike and Vivien Fritz.

Chuck Ross, secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, said the money is for businesses that shape the character of the state. He said the money is going to the people who exemplify the soul of the state and the values of its residents.

“Their work, their dirty hands, the ones with the calluses, some of them missing a digit or two from a bad day, these are the folks who really shape the communities in which we live,” Ross said.

Vern Grubinger, a professor who works in the University of Vermont's Extension Service's Brattleboro office, was a service provider grant recipient of $40,000.

Grubinger said he will use the money to provide other Vermont growers with the technical assistance to help them store crops during the winter months.

“These funds are critical to us to leverage the capacity we have,” Grubinger said.

He said the money will benefit the entire agriculture sector in the state when growers purchase the equipment necessary to store their produce.

Among the eight capital and infrastructure recipients are Peggy and Ken Farabaugh of Vernon, who operate Vermont Wood Studios. They received a $100,000 grant that will be used to complete work on a studio and gallery on a former farm property on Huckle Hill Road.

Vermont Wood Studio specializes in furniture made from Vermont wood. It was one of 22 applicants for the capital grants.

There was $1.175 million in the 2013 budget for the program. About $975,000 was allotted by the Working Lands Enterprise Board, which was created to administer the program.

In May, $220,000 was given to 20 grant recipients under the program's first category, the enterprise investment area. Of the two remaining categories, the service provider area received $350,000, split among eight recipients, and the capital and infrastructure investment area received $400,000, split among the remaining eight.

Ross said that the program has been allocated $1.425 million for the 2014 fiscal year.

However, after receiving 240 applications for all three program categories, Ross said the board needs to take a break and reflect on new ways to efficiently distribute the funds.

“We're kind of taking a deep breath right now,” he said.

Colleen Leonard, Working Lands Enterprise policy manager for the ag agency, said the program is developing new ways to fund businesses with the grant money, such as facilitating interest-free loans.

Leonard also said the board will consider ways to make the application process more efficient to reduce the overhead cost of distributing the money.

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