Editor’s note: This commentary is by Dana Colson, a resident of Sharon. He is running for lieutenant governor in 2020.
Vermont’s rural economy is in crisis. Our farmers, loggers and small businesses have been part of the backbone of our rural Vermont economy for hundreds of years. Sadly, we have been losing many of them over the last couple decades. The Vermont Legislature, with their socialist city-slicker, climate-crusader mentality has been hostile to our farmers, loggers and small businesses for way too long. They favor the urban life and want to force their ways upon us country folk. I for one say they can keep those veggie burgers, and their soy milk is just nuts. I will keep eating real meat and drinking real milk. I grew up on the farm. My grandparents owned a farm in Royalton, where we lived for many years, and my parents bought a farm in Barton, where we lived for a few years also. We milked cows and raised pigs and chickens. We grew a garden. In the winter we logged. So, farming and logging was our way of life — it’s in my blood, sweat and tears. It breaks my heart to see family farms close while government grows. It’s time we put a stop to this. It’s time for change. It’s time for new leaders and a new direction.
I have a plan to revive our rural economy. It starts with our farms and forests. Our farms, forests, energy production and environment all depend upon each other. Everyone needs food and shelter. Farmers provide the food. Loggers and sawmills provide the lumber for shelter and sawdust for farm livestock bedding. We need energy to heat our homes and power our lights, our equipment and our transportation needs. Our wildlife needs pasture and cornfields to graze on too. I hate to think of what Vermont would look like without our farms. COVID-19 has helped expose the problems of sourcing our food from far-off places. The supply chain can break down. Any farmer or logger knows a chain is only as strong as the weakest link. Meat packing plants have closed, supermarket shelves are bare and dairy farmers have been forced to dump milk. We need to be self-reliant and grow, process and market our own food right here in Vermont. We need to go back to our roots.
We can start by giving our food-producing farmers a tax cut. This can be dairy, meat, fruits and vegetables or maple syrup. We could do this through income tax cuts or property tax cuts. We can start with our full-time farmers and expand it to part-time farmers as the budget allows. Either way, I am open to negotiation on the how, but it needs to be real and substantial. The bottom line is we need our farms. My message to the city slickers is “don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” Our Agriculture Department should be doing more to help farmers market their products both in and out of state. They can help build a website, create a marketing plan, or provide low-interest loans for processing equipment. Direct marketing from farm to table can be the most profitable.
We also need to look at milk pricing. The Legislature talks a lot about increasing the minimum wage. What they don’t tell you is they will raise your taxes even more, so your net is less, and they are the only ones who get more, not you. I say lower our taxes. Our dairy farmers work the hardest, longest hours and have no minimum price for their milk. Then they can be told to dump their milk with little notice. It’s not right and not fair.
Hemp is another market for Vermont farmers. A lot of farms grew a crop of hemp last year, but there was not enough capacity for processing. This is a growth industry and our Agriculture Department should be focused on increasing Vermont’s processing capacity. Hemp has a lot of medicinal uses which can reduce health care costs without the side effects of some pharmaceuticals. Health care accounts for 30% of our state budget.
Roughly 100 years ago, 80% of Vermont’s hillsides were bare pasture, and only 20% forest. Now Vermont is roughly 80% forest and 20% open. We have an abundance of wood. That wood is a valuable resource we can harvest. I am not advocating for clear-cutting every tree in sight. There needs to be a balance where trees are harvested and regrown at a similar rate. If our loggers cut every tree in Vermont, they would put themselves out of business. We should look at how we heat all our state buildings. It may make sense for the garages to burn waste oil, but many others could be converted to wood chips or wood pellet heat, which is a low cost, renewable energy. This increases the demand for wood products and helps our logging industry, too.
The socialist, climate crusaders in our Legislature want our best farm fields covered in solar panels and for us to subsidize their electric cars. I don’t have a problem with them buying an electric car if they wish. That is their choice. However, many of us need a pickup truck for our work, and why should we pay for their car? Those batteries do not hold up well in Vermont’s cold winters either. Turn on the heater and those batteries drain fast. A hybrid car makes more sense for those who need a car. I don’t see anyone hauling much hay or sawdust in those little cars though. Many of us still need pickup trucks for work and we shouldn’t be punished for it. I am not against solar panels, I just think we should not be putting them on our best farmland. They would be better sited on side hills, rocky soil, or buildings, for example.
Vermont has one of the highest electricity rates in the nation. This hurts all our wallets. We need a diverse renewable energy mix. We need a mix of solar, wind, methane, wood and hydro. Wind and solar have some limitations. Solar only produces electricity when the sun shines. Wind only produces electricity when the wind blows. However, wood and methane can be burned to run a steam generator on demand. Hydro can release water to produce power on demand also. So, hydro, wood and methane need to be part of the power mix to match power production to power demand. CVPS, which merged with Green Mountain Power, had a cow power program where farms produced methane power from manure. I would like to see this program expanded to more large dairy farms.
Helping our farmers and loggers will have a ripple effect throughout our rural communities. If farmers do well, that helps the veterinarians, the feed store, the equipment dealers and other small businesses. This is the key to reviving our rural economy. However, it only can begin with your support at the ballot box.