The “New Economy” Can Strengthen Vermont’s Working Landscape

The July 10, 2011 issue of Time magazine ran an article titled “Want to Make More than a Banker? Become a Farmer!”  It is about the resurgence in the value of Midwest grain farms as food and energy (with the impact of ethanol) prices rise globally.

Vermont farmers and forestland owners must find new sources of income if our celebrated working landscape is to survive and thrive.  While Vermont farmland, with our dominant dairy industry and fast-growing diversified vegetable and value-added farms, is not seeing a doubling in value in the past six years like the Midwest, our farmers and foresters are likely to see better income opportunities in coming decades.

It’s my view that in the coming years of slower, “peak petroleum” economic growth, Vermont’s farms and forests can play a key role in enhancing economic prosperity and resilience and generating a higher return on investment, both financial and in terms of a return to nature’s capital*

I have focused on the food side of this equation for almost 30 years though Gardener’s Supply and the Intervale Center plus through board membership with VNRC, the Vermont  Land Trust, the Vermont  Sustainable Ag Council, and helping Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility to launch Farm to Plate.  The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund just completed the Farm to Plate statewide plan for our food system. It concluded that the direct economic impact of increasing farming and food production in Vermont by just 5 percent (by Vermonters buying more local food and/or selling more to New England) would generate $135 million in annual output for the Vermont economy.

As the Time magazine article notes, in addition to food, the renaissance in farm value and employment is being triggered by another major force in today’s economy that can help Vermont landowners increase their financial return beyond food: Clean energy.

“Peak oil” has arrived. Other fossil fuels are quickly dwindling as well. Energy costs will increase and with the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant closing in 2012, we will experience new energy supply and cost challenges.  But Vermont has been innovating in the area of land-based renewable energy for decades with the McNeil wood-fired electrical generating plant and the Biomass Energy Resource Center  showing the way to optimize our biomass resources for heating. Dairy farmers are generating electricity from manure bio-digesters, and biodiesel is replacing on-farm fossil fuel use.

This transition to a locally owned, more resilient and more affordable (as fossil fuels costs rise) energy system can accelerate with the right policies and incentives.  Our working landscape can play a central role and benefit from this shift.  Innovative group net metering programs, state tax credits and financing support for clean energy projects, and the Vermont’s standard offer (the nation’s first statewide price for renewable energy projects) are birthing hundreds of new of clean energy projects – owned by Vermonters – all across the state. 

Vermont energy experts suggest that the state’s working landscapes offer the potential for wind, solar, biomass and methane projects to generate over 50 percent of our electrical energy by 2030 (they generate 5 percent now).  This clean, safe, local energy would more than replace the 30 percent of our electricity we get from Vermont Yankee.   Solar and wind projects will be the key to this happening.

To learn more about this “new economy” opportunity I developed a 150 thousand kWh solar array last year to provide all electrical power for Farm at South Village, a CSA farm I started in 2009.  Excess power from this array is provided through Green Mountain Power and their group net metering program to the City of South Burlington (for traffic and street lights) and to South Village Community.  Plus, the CSA has locked in energy prices for the next 25-30 years…now there’s a long-term competitive advantage vs Calif tomatoes and lettuce!

Now, I’m working with Encore Redevelopment, a leading clean energy project developer, to develop an exciting wind project in Derby Line under the Vermont standard offer SPEED program.  This project is comprised of two 2.2 MW turbines located on adjacentfarms, the Chase Farm and the Grandview Farm, in the Northern Plateau among the corn rows.  It is projected to generate eight  million kWh ofcarbon-free electricity each year. Besides helping the two dairies control their energy costs and generate extra income, these wind turbines would keep 4,000 metric tons of CO2out of the atmosphere . . . comparable to keeping 700 cars offVermont roads each year. 

Vermonters send a lot of money out of state to get energy. But we don’t have to.

The nearly $100 million we currently pay to get almost 1/3 of our electricity from a risky and aging power nuclear plant also sends a substantial flow of profits to corporate owners outside Vermont while we bear the risk. To heat our homes, we buy heating oil that comes from out of state, while we could support farms to produce more renewable biomass as an alternative heating fuel.

Instead, we can start using this money leaking out of the Vermont economy to fund Vermont’s transition to local, clean energy. We will keep our dollars circulating in Vermont and help build a more resilient economy. 

 *  Partnering with Vermont’s farmland and forests to produce more needed products sustainably will generate financial ROI as well as the value that comes from healthy forests converting CO2 to oxygen, restored soils sequestering atmospheric carbon and protected wetlands purifying water. We are some years away from a new economic analysis framework that has the ROI on nature’s capital on the same ledger as the ROI on our financial capital, but we will get there.  The Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at UVM is a national leader in developing new economic analysis that values nature’s services.

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