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Tebbetts Op-Ed: Farmer Housing, Jobs, and the Economy

January 12, 2024
Vermont Statehouse in winter snow with trees in foreground

By Anson Tebbetts | Vermont Secretary of Agriculture

From Canaan to Cavendish, and Duxbury to Dummerston, Vermonters are asking for more housing units and better-quality dwellings. Workers - employees - we hear you, asking for more well-constructed homes, apartments, and condos so you can work, live, and play closer to where you earn. We are listening and determined to act.

We hear calls for more housing from all industry sectors. From high tech, to hospitality, to hospitals – to agriculture - the need is acute. Every week, we hear from young farmers who have tremendous energy, enthusiasm, and training to work the land, producing food for Vermont and our region. We also hear from New Americans who have moved to the Green Mountains for a better life. But agriculture is not a 9 to 5 profession. There are often odd and long hours. Aspiring farmers are discouraged because they cannot find affordable housing closer to their farms, fields, and processing facilities. They cannot find housing closer to their jobs.

The need is acute, and critical to Vermont’s future. If we don’t create more places to live, youth will continue to leave our state, among them, young farmers, and entrepreneurs. We need to allow more flexibility to build housing closer to the place of work. We must listen to the next generation as we develop policies in the Legislature this year.

As the legislative session gets underway, all of us need to keep an open mind and embrace common sense suggestions that will offer more opportunities for workers and employers. That will include updating Act 250, Vermont’s decades old land use law. It has been more than 50 years since Act 250 was created, and Vermont has changed. If our regulations, guidelines, and policies don’t change along with our state, we risk Vermont becoming a place where only privileged people can afford to live and work.

As we take on vast and problematic housing issues, one model we could consider broadening is existing small-scale farm worker housing policies. Vermont has invested in this area, but we must do much more if we are going to provide good jobs to Vermonters, as well as enjoy fresh food and world class products. 

Imagine the possibilities if we could further elevate our food industry by boosting our workforce. Vermont produces world class dairy products like butter, yogurt, ice cream and cheese but we could do more if we had more affordable housing in our rural regions. Lack of housing has prevented companies from keeping pace or growing. Companies of all sizes are telling us they could produce more or expand their operations if there were more housing in Vermont. There are even examples of businesses having to stop producing award winning products because of the lack of labor.  More housing could halt that trend. We have made some progress by investing in farm worker housing though the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and the Working Lands Enterprise Fund but progress could be made if we modernize our laws.

There is growing momentum to embrace common sense changes to Act 250 this session so Vermont’s farm, forest and food economy can grow. It’s time for Vermont to realize that as much as employees fill jobs, they are people who need homes, as well as access to reliable utilities, internet, groceries, and education. They’re great workers, they love their jobs, and all too often, they must move away because getting to and from work is just too hard, too long, too time-consuming. Vermont has the chance to bend the curve and start creating more housing closer to jobs and opportunity.

People are seeking jobs, and employers are hiring. Good jobs are waiting. However, attracting and retaining workers is difficult when there is no place to live near your job.

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture is ready to lead. We owe it to current and future generations of Vermonters who want to call Vermont their home. Let’s work together this session to create real, meaningful change for all Vermonters, for today and tomorrow.

Anson B. Tebbetts 

Vermont Secretary of Agriculture