Farmers Benefit from VHCB Farm & Forest Viability Program and VLT Farmland Access Program
by Glenn Scherer
Business at Bear Roots Farm is brisk and booming. The former dairy farm—now an organic vegetable farm—boasts newly built greenhouses, a CSA and farmstand popular with locals, plus strong farmers' market sales, and a growing number of wholesale accounts.
The astounding thing: This Barre Town farm is just one year old, with only one full growing season under its belt. Farmers Jon Wagner-Herbert and Karin Bellemare credit their lightning quick success to the VLT Farmland Access Program, which helped them purchase their land, and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board's Farm & Forest Viability Program, which gave them an infusion of sound business advice.
“Farming is hard work, and starting a farm is even harder,” says Jon. “Both programs made that hard job way easier.”
The couple, both graduates of Green Mountain College, had struggled to run a farm on leased land in Long Island for four years, before seeking land in Vermont. They responded to a request for proposals that VLT had issued for farmers interested in buying the 87-acre Barre Town farm. The farm's owners, Ted Russell and Josie Ritter, wanted to sell their farm to working farmers and had contacted VLT for help.
VLT purchased the farm from Ted and Josie and leased it to Jon and Karin for a year while funding was secured for the farm's conservation. In the end, Jon and Karin sold a conservation easement to VLT to help finance their dream purchase. The easement purchase was funded by the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board (VHCB), the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and The Forrest & Frances Lattner Foundation.
VHCB's Viability Program simultaneously supported the couple’s new venture, linking them with farm business adviser Sam Smith, from the Intervale Center, who helped them write a business plan, develop a website, and get advice on bookkeeping, greenhouse construction, cattle management, and more.
“VHCB serves as matchmaker, pairing a farmer with an advisor or team of consultants to meet their particular business needs,” explains Viability Program Coordinator Liz Gleason. The two-year program uses a network of approximately two dozen farm business advisers from NOFA Vermont, the Intervale Center, University of Vermont and other organizations, along with private consultants. Participating Vermont farmers work with their adviser to develop a detailed business plan the first year, then implement and revise the plan the second year.
“The Viability Program gets you up to speed quick,” notes Jon, “It prevents costly mistakes, and you get the benefit of years of Vermont farm experience, for free. We never had resources like that on our old farm, where we had to constantly reinvent the wheel.”
“I encourage farmers at any stage in their business—whether sophisticated long-term farmers, or those newer to farming—to consider the program," says Viability Program Director Ela Chapin. "It’s a way to analyze your business and increase your viability, productivity, profitability, and people skills. We’ve helped hundreds of farmers identify and meet their goals for their farms, careers, and families.”
James and Sarah Elworthy benefited greatly from both the VLT and VHCB programs: “In 2007, I was a farmer with four cows on 30 leased acres in Shoreham; it just wasn’t sustainable,” James recalls.
VLT’s Farmland Access Program helped the couple find and buy land in Poultney, while the Viability Program helped them formulate a business plan. “Our adviser sat us down and laid out everything. That’s when all things became illuminated,” says James, who worked with farm adviser Mark Cannella, now at the University of Vermont Extension Service. “Back then, we sold beef, pork, eggs, and chickens, and had a dairy farm. When we crunched the numbers, we saw that we were trying to do too much, and needed to focus on our cows. Our adviser helped us develop a tidy business plan we could show lenders, and to analyze cash flow to project future income.”
In 2008, the couple bought their 127-acre Liberty Farm, which now supports a 50-cow dairy herd. “The two programs segue perfectly,” says James. “VLT guided us through the purchasing process, and because we sold the development rights to them, we had the financing to buy the farm straight away. Meanwhile, the Viability Program helped us suss out what would work financially and what wouldn’t.”
While the Farmland Access and Viability programs have close ties, you don’t have to be in one to qualify for the other, notes VLT Farmland Access Program Director Jon Ramsay: “Some farmers do the Viability Program before buying a farm and some after, and some well-established farms use the Viability Program to help ramp up for new projects,” as did Kimball Brook Farm in North Ferrisburgh when it started its organic milk bottling business.
Success breeds success. Eighteen months ago, the Viability Program broadened its mission to include the forestry sector, says Chapin. “We’re now advising clients ranging from forestry firms and loggers, to mill operators and wood manufacturing businesses.” VHCB has already enrolled 20 forestry clients in the program.
Meanwhile, back at Bear Roots Farm, work hasn’t slowed with the onset of cold weather. “We’re getting our walk-in cooler installed and storage space set up to support a winter CSA, winter farmers market, and winter wholesale customers,” says Jon. “But we couldn’t have done it without VLT and VHCB. They made it possible for us to afford a farm in record time and get a running start. Their help has been huge.”