Farmland Access Program Pioneers Share Their Stories of Growth
by Will Lindner
For a creative, enterprising farmer, an acre of land presents opportunities, whether to improve its yield or to respond to diverse demand for local food products. VLT’s Farmland Access Program is a creative enterprise as well. Since 2004, it has connected farmers with land where they can start or expand a business. Through the sale of conservation easements that limit development and protect environmental features, the program lowers the cost of farms and finds ways to help farmers afford them.
Farmers then must use their own expertise to create successful businesses. VLT ensures easements are upheld, but otherwise farms tell their own stories upon the land—stories that inevitably change both the farm and the farmer.
Ten years ago, Spencer and Jennifer Blackwell were the first to buy a farm through the program—the Elmer Farm in Middlebury. That year, they also married and had a child.
One approach VLT takes is to buy a farm to get it off the open market before soliciting proposals from interested farmers. VLT then seeks funding for a conservation easement before re-selling the farm at its more affordable appraised agricultural value.
The Blackwells’ proposal was convincing. “Our business plan’s guiding principles included building community connections with local schools and a CSA, and farming as sustainably as we can,” says Jennifer. “Another aspect was to revitalize the farm in terms of its soil productivity.” Used for hay for many years, the soil needed work to meet the demands of vegetable farming. Spencer adds that they found the groundwater table in spring and fall was too high. “The first thing we did was install drainage tile,” he says, “and since then we’ve been working on building up the organic matter.”
Their organic farm now grows 35 different vegetables, plus herbs, grains, and flowers. Instead of a 75-member CSA—their original goal—they have 125 members. Their family has also grown, now with three children. “The Farmland Access Program was an incredible opportunity for us,” says Jennifer. “We’ve exceeded all our expectations.”
Farther south, in West Pawlet, Andy Farmer has difficulty imagining how he could have purchased farmland without the program. “I had a shovel that I owned, and I don’t think there was much else,” Andy recalls.
He had a vision for a business rare in New England. At Northeast Vine Supply, Andy and his wife, India, nurse cold-climate grapevines. They put about a quarter-million vines in an outdoor nursery each year and sell them to customers in 30 states. They keep current with new varieties and advise vineyard owners on the grapes’ characteristics.
When the couple connected with VLT in 2008, they were leasing land. VLT helped them evaluate properties, including the farm in West Pawlet. The Castanea Foundation provided a bridge loan so they could get the property off the market. VLT got funding for an easement, which made the land affordable. Now, six years later, Andy and India own a thriving business, have improved the farm’s infrastructure, and are selling table grapes to stores and watermelons to a Vermont juice company.
“A lot of creative thinking went into getting us here,” says Andy. “We have surpassed our business plan many times over. I’m actually pushing the hedgerows back each year to have more room for plantings.”
The 20-acre Kingsbury Market Garden in Warren is another old farm that was revitalized. It demonstrates that while land conservation is permanent, farm ownership and business models change over time. In this case, a new approach to farming created a vibrant business on a small farm that didn’t traditionally support a commercial-scale operation.
VLT bought the farm when it went on the market in 2006, solicited proposals from farmers, and eventually sold it to the Vermont Foodbank. “The community’s response,” says VLT’s Liza Walker, “was, ‘That couldn’t be a better fit for us!’” The foodbank hired farmer Aaron Locker with the condition that he provide them with 30,000 pounds of produce annually.
There were immediate changes. Crops were planted, infrastructure improved, and hoophouses and greenhouses were built. The foodbank installed two solar trackers to power the farm. (VLT, safeguarding the easement’s goals, asked that they be moved from the agricultural soils.) Then in 2011, Tropical Storm Irene stripped away half an acre of land and flooded the greenhouses. Because the easement requires a vegetated buffer along the river for water quality, some farmland had to be taken out of production.
Through all of this, Aaron developed a productive vegetable farm on about six acres of tillable land. “You can get a lot of produce off a small amount of land if you do it right,” he says.
Eventually, the foodbank changed course and sold the farm to Aaron. He could afford it because conservation had reduced its value. He now sells to stores, restaurants, and through a multi-farm CSA that includes two other conserved farms. He is branching out into medicinal herbs and is expanding to rented land while looking for more land to purchase. The ticket to securing it, he says, is conservation. “That’s the only way for someone in my position to buy land.”
That’s a common story in Vermont: people have more passion for farming than they do resources for obtaining land. For many aspiring farmers, however, it’s a dilemma that conservation has solved.