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Farmers and foresters say Act 250 is choking industry evolution

A woman in a work coat and jeans standing in front of a lumber mill
Peter Hirschfeld
/
Vermont Public
Colleen Goodridge, standing in front of the lumber mill she started in 1971. Goodridge said the future of wood products manufacturing operations like hers hinges on regulatory relief from Montpelier.

Farmers and foresters have converged at the Statehouse this year to try to convince lawmakers that Act 250 regulations are holding back the working lands economy.

Agriculture and forestry have long anchored local economies in rural Vermont, but experts say the nature of those industries is changing.

“What I’ve seen over the last 10 years is a real shift in the agricultural landscape," said Sam Smith, a farm business planner at the Intervale Center. “The dairy economy does not allow for a small-scale, family-based operation anymore, and we don’t have any clear, replicable, viable commodity system that works for farmers.”

Volatility in global markets and industry consolidation have forced the people who work the land to seek out new business models. And those workers say a 54-year-old land-use statute is stunting the evolution needed to keep the agriculture and wood products sectors alive.

The original drafters of Act 250 included exemptions for farming, as a way to acknowledge the industry’s unique contribution to the economy and landscape. Jake Claro, director of the Farm to Plate program at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, said the definitions of farming in the law have in many cases become obsolete.

“What was accepted as the definition of farming 54 years ago when Act 250 passed no longer wholly represent the realities of modern farming today,” Claro told lawmakers last week.

More from Brave Little State: Vermont is changing. Should Act 250 change with it?

Claro and others are calling on the Vermont Legislature to extend Act 250 exemptions to what are known in the agriculture sector as “accessory on-farm businesses.”

Clara Ayer is a third-generation co-owner of Fairmont Farm, a 1,400-cow dairy operation in East Montpelier. Ayer told lawmakers that 10 years ago, the family assumed that growth in milk production was going to be the surest path to profitability. She said the business model has shifted.

“And so as we think about what the path forward is for us today, it’s a lot different than it used to be,” Ayer said. “I’d say it’s probably rare these days for dairy farms not to have some sort of diversification.”

Fairmont has opened an on-farm retail store where they sell local meat, started a day camp for kids during the summer, and even has an adult day program for local seniors with care needs.

A white picket fence with a sign that says 'Fairmont Farm Registered Holstein' in the foreground and a white barn in the background
Peter Hirschfeld
/
Vermont Public
Fairmont Farm has added new product lines and on-farm services such as summer camps to supplement revenue from a shift in the dairy business model.

Ayer and other farmers and industry experts say the next chapter in Vermont agriculture is in many cases about diversifying product lines, getting into agritourism, building out processing facilities to make value added products, and focusing on direct-to-consumer sales.

The problem, according to Abbey Willard with the Agency of Agriculture, is that the infrastructure expansions needed to pursue those ventures is often subject to Act 250 oversight that adds time and cost to projects.

“And let’s say you’re a produce farm that operates in an old dairy barn and you need a larger processing space to make salsa. … That type of expansion, even though we would consider that not commercial development, would likely trigger an Act 250 permit,” Willard said. “As agriculture has evolved and the definition of farming has evolved … this legislation, this statute, should also evolve.”

Craftsbury Rep. Katherine Sims has introduced a bill that would eliminate Act 250 oversight for accessory on-farm businesses. The legislation would also grant Act 250 exemptions to wood products manufacturers of a certain size.

“Working lands businesses are vital to what makes Vermont Vermont. They help keep our landscape open and beautiful. … They are an essential part of our economy, and it is often harder and harder to make ends meet as a farm or a sawmill,” Sims said. “And if we want to have those industries as a part of Vermont’s future, this is one way that we can help support the viability of those businesses moving forward.”

A lawmaker in a flowery green dress standing in front of the chamber of the House of Representatives
Peter Hirschfeld
/
Vermont Public
Craftsbury Rep. Katherine Sims, a Democrat, has introduced a bill that would eliminate certain Act 250 oversights. She said the bill would support "essential part(s)" of Vermont's economy as farmers are finding it harder to make ends meet.

Tucker Riggs, who owns a sawmill in Fletcher, told lawmakers last week that it took him 18 months and $40,000 to secure the permit he needed to expand his operation.

He said younger people looking to get into the industry can’t afford that kind of time and expense.

“In my mind, Act 250 is the largest hurdle on getting a sawmill operation up off the ground in the state,” Riggs said.

Colleen Goodridge, owner of Goodridge Lumber in Albany, said the legislation would finally give the forest products industry the same recognition that agriculture got when Act 250 passed in 1970.

“To me, growing up on a dairy farm, I never saw much difference between farming and being in the sawmill business. And I felt that managing forests was on par with agriculture, which is so important,” Goodridge said. “Unless those businesses are accepted, valued and supported, they will be gone. And I think we need to keep that in mind with an aging workforce.”

Jamey Fidel, director of the forest and wildlife program at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, told lawmakers that his organization supports efforts to strengthen the working lands economy.

He said Act 250, however, is an important backstop to protect critical environmental resources.

“We’re uncomfortable with the concept of an outright exemption, because we’re concerned that, let’s say, for example, especially in towns that have no zoning or environmental bylaws, what is the environmental review then for the facilities?” Fidel said.

The House Committee on Agriculture, Food Resiliency and Forestry is scheduled to vote the legislation out of committee this week. Lawmakers say it’s likely the bill will eventually be folded into a broader Act 250 reform package that includes provisions related to housing.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

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The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.