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Farmers, Environmentalists and Policymakers Gather to Gab About the Green Valley

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SOUTH BURLINGTON -- If last Thursday's "Agriculture & the Environment" conference could be reduced to a slogan, it might read: It's not always easy bein' green, but it's possible, and profitable, too.

The Vermont Environmental Consortium, which hosted the event at the Sheraton Hotel & Conference Center, is very much pro-environment; after all, the conference was subtitled, "Solutions for a Sustainable Future." But it's not a political advocacy group. Its 41 members include Vermont colleges, alternative energy developers and the pro-business Vermont Chamber of Commerce. Executive Director Daniel Hecht -- yes, he's the novelist -- says the 5-year-old organization favors "a market-based and integrated approach to environmental protection."

It's a nuanced stance that apparently appeals to politicians at both ends of Vermont's political spectrum, from Republican Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie, who opened the daylong event, to Progressive Statehouse Agriculture Committee Chair David Zuckerman, who headed a panel on Emerging Products. There were no sessions on the controversial issue of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The conference drew 220 people, a larger-than-expected crowd that included about four dozen farmers. "There are a lot of people on the same page about this," says Hecht.

By "this," he means helping Vermont farmers run more energy-efficient, eco-friendly, profitable businesses, and promoting Vermont as an environmental innovator. It's a concept VEC refers to as "the Green Valley."

Lt. Governor Dubie mentioned the term in his opening remarks. The day, he said, was about "putting some flesh, some meat on the bones of the Green Valley dream." As an example, he said that on a recent trip to Sugarbush, he was told the grooming equipment is running on biodiesel. He sounded impressed.

Next up were Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr and Republican state legislator Harvey Smith. Kerr urged attendees to "think big" when it comes to the Green Valley. "This isn't all so futuristic that we're just dreaming," he said, encouraging the farmers in the audience to consider adopting technologies that turn farm waste into energy.

Smith added, "We want to use that waste stream and turn it into a profit stream."

The farmers were definitely listening. During a break after the morning panel, Jason Burt, a dairy farmer who owns Burtland Farms in Georgia, said he was interested in hearing anything anyone could tell him about improving his operation. "Anything to save money," he said, "make the bottom line stronger."

He was particularly interested to learn about Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport and its anaerobic methane digester, which converts dairy waste product into electricity. Burt is looking into buying a digester, too, and was hoping to get some technical assistance from alternative energy developers at the conference.

The developers seemed happy to oblige. Some set up displays advertising their services; others spoke on afternoon panels after a lunchtime keynote address by a pioneering Pennsylvania dairy farmer.

Bob Baird, a dairy farmer in North Chittenden and the southwest agricultural director for the Vermont Land Trust, said he was pleased by the turnout. He said it was good to see so many different kinds of people getting in on this conversation. "It's kind of inspiring," he said.

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