- Marc Nadel
As Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton continue to dominate the political airwaves with WikiLeaking, system-rigging, pussy-grabbing ballyhoo, Vermont's own executive contest has unfolded more quietly. Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and Democratic former transportation secretary Sue Minter have chatted with voters at candidate forums and breakfasts, cocktail parties and an array of other public events.
With wind power, taxes and the economy as the major election issues, neither candidate has given much airtime to food or agriculture. A scheduled appearance with the Vermont Farm to Plate network fell through late last month when Minter bailed to hang with Vice President Joe Biden. That left food and ag interests in the dark on how farms, restaurants, breweries and other food-based businesses fit into the candidates' schematics for a stronger Vermont (read more about their platforms in Terri Hallenbeck's story).
Hungry for answers, Seven Days pulled a series of questions from representatives at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, Rural Vermont, Vermont Brewers Association, Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association and the state chamber of commerce, among other organizations — and posed them to the candidates last week.
On many issues, the pols showed parity: Both vowed to maintain working agricultural and forest lands under the current use tax structure. Both rejected raising meals, beverage and room taxes, an idea often floated by the legislature to close budget gaps. Neither took a stance on prioritizing enforcement of a state law requiring truth-in-labeling for products calling themselves "maple" — though each voiced a mandate to protect Vermont's food and beverage brand and revitalize downtowns.
In the following interviews — which have been edited and condensed for space and clarity — the candidates weigh in on young farmers, biodigesters, working in restaurants and more.
SEVEN DAYS: Vermont's farm population is aging, and the farm succession rate is low, even as high real estate prices prevent many young farmers from accessing land. How would you limit the farmland attrition and improve land access for beginning farmers?
In terms of the high cost of land, we have to preserve Current Use. We have to contain the cost of living, build our population and pay attention to [the needs of] small businesses. Throughout Vermont, the stagnant population and decrease in the 25 to 45 age group is really hurting our state.
So the question is: How do we make Vermont more affordable to keep our youth here? How do we attract quality businesses?
My campaign is all about improving economic opportunities for small businesses. We need to work with our downtowns and regional planning centers to increase affordable housing and provide tax incentives and permitting help for development. And provide access to capital for small businesses — then not burdening them with overregulation.
Specialty agricultural products are one sector that is actually growing. It's a bright light in our economic future, [and the] beer and cheese producers are a big tourism draw. But we can't rest on our laurels — other states are following our lead on this.
We need to continue [the] Current Use [Program] and the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board's farm management program, so we can continue to access land and think about how to help new farmers and get more value-added products to market.
My InnovateVT economic strategy is about driving innovation in four key sectors; one of them is the farm and forest food economy. We've come a long way through the Farm to Plate network — having been a part of initiating that, I see great potential and growth already under way [that] I want to support.
I had a great day at the [Vermont] Food Venture Center in the Northeast Kingdom recently — seeing how we support small agricultural producers with a shared, co-op model for creating, storing and shipping food.
SD: Farm practices significantly impact Vermont's environment, from water quality to soil health and carbon sequestration. How would you incentivize regenerative farming practices?
Agriculture is the backbone of Vermont: It's our tourism and marketing strategy, and it's all of our endeavors. We have to be a better partner. In practice, we're making gains, but we have significant challenges ahead. Some farms are injecting the soil with manure [instead of spreading it on top]. That's been very effective [from an environmental standpoint]. We need to develop better buffer zones and crop rotation practices — and incentives to reward those practices.
We need to incorporate, for example, [regionalized] biodigesters — so we can create some energy with the by-product. Technology will help us through this situation, and we need to utilize capital grants. The agency of agriculture has an obligation to help, and we as a society need to work our way through this. I think there needs to be assistance all along the way.
We're looking to implement the Clean Water Act. And I want to make sure my agriculture department provides technical service and support, not just enforcement.
We're at a significant [moment] in terms of our ability to transition farms to better soil-treatment practices. We want to encourage farms to move toward organic where it's possible. The more we can transition to organic, the better off we'll be, where water and soil quality are concerned.
I'm talking to a lot of small farmers, and I'm hearing great concern that federal rules are imposing new challenges. Addressing that will take a governor who is active with the congressional delegation. I did that during [Tropical Storm] Irene recovery, and I'll work to ensure that the regulatory burden doesn't overwhelm [our small farms'] ability to succeed.
SD: In 2015, craft breweries generated $199 million in Vermont. But most breweries are small startups, which may struggle to grow under proposed mandates for minimum-wage increases, overtime pay and paid sick leave. How can the state support this industry?
It's not just the brewing industry. That's one of the reasons I got involved in politics 16 years ago — I could see the obstacles coming from the legislature that wouldn't allow me to grow my business.
We can't continue to make it more difficult for people to create jobs and put great products on the market. I want to increase access to capital for small businesses. I support the Vermont Economic Development [Authority]. I want to create an angel investor tax credit, which would help create new investors.
I want to put mountain biking on the map — nothing goes better with mountain biking than craft beer. The synergy of that is to create an ecosystem of entrepreneurship.
My downtown program creates growth and investment for entrepreneurs. And with VT-Outdoors, we're talking about linking those towns to mountain bike trails and recognizing Vermont as an [outdoor] destination. So, [I want] to create more of a market for [our breweries] as we build our destinations.
SD: Have you ever worked in a restaurant?
I have. I actually co-owned a couple of Shoney's restaurants, and a bar as well, where we had food. So I've done my share of working in the back of the house.
Oh, yeah. I did a lot of restaurant work throughout my twenties. I waitressed in college and worked as a cook — and bartended — for six or seven years.
SD: Based on that experience, how can state government better support food service businesses?
We need to market Vermont and double down on this crisis of affordability and economic issues. Our lack of focus on the economy is real. I use this [example] a lot, but two years ago, 1,200 bills were introduced [in the legislature] that could have had real benefits for the economy; only three or four passed.
And if you look at the last session, I can't point to one bill that would have provided relief for our businesses. We're just continuing to place more burden in terms of fees and taxes and obstacles along the way.
I'd advocate that every legislator do what I did and go out on this jobs tour. Go work in a kitchen or in the front of the house at a restaurant, and see what you learn. There are many opportunities to open your eyes to the challenges we face.
I actually look more to my experience of supporting restaurants in my home community of Waterbury. We've created an environment where restaurants are thriving and expanding.
My whole InvestVT program is about supporting [our downtowns] to foster an environment in which restaurants and other businesses can thrive. When government can partner with a community that has a vision and a plan — and strong leadership — to bring resources that already exist to meet community goals, we've seen transformation.
In Barre, a $19 million public infrastructure investment has leveraged $45 million in private investment. Barre is now a community on the move. Similar things have happened in St. Albans and in my town of Waterbury. We went from a ghost town to a thriving craft-beer hub. During this election, I've been spending a lot of time in Bennington and Windham counties, and I see a lot of downtowns that could benefit from this — and in the Northeast Kingdom, too.