For many new farmers, launching a business is like putting together a puzzle. To complete the picture, each puzzle piece must be in the correct place at the correct time. Financing, property, market demand, business planning, and even conservation, are just a few of these pieces. In Orange County, two new farms have taken off because things came together in the right way at the right time.
Strafford Village Farm, Strafford
Shannon Varley, now of Strafford Village Farm, knew she wanted to grow food since she was a child. She noticed that many who were succeeding at small-scale agriculture had inherited farmland or money, or one person in a couple had a great off-farm job. “I wanted to show people, ‘You can really do this without any of those things, and here’s how’,” said Shannon. “I want farming to be attainable for anyone with the passion for it.”
She and her husband, BJ Miller, renovated and sold homes in Maryland until they had enough money to buy some land to farm. Shortly after, however, a devastating fire destroyed everything. The fire led Shannon and BJ back to Strafford, Vermont, where they once lived and where they now began to look for farmland. They contacted VLT to see if selling a conservation easement could make buying a farm more affordable.
With help from VLT’s Farmland Access Program, Shannon and BJ were able to buy and conserve the old Lewis dairy in Strafford. The 100-acre farm is mostly wooded, with 31 acres of fields and pasture along the West Branch of the Ompompanoosuc River. The couple began Strafford Village Farm, pasture-raising pork, lamb, and beef, and growing vegetables, herbs, and flowers.
“People say to me all the time, ‘It’s so good to see the land being used as a farm again’,” said Shannon. “There’s something beautiful, historic, cultural about knowing that [agricultural] work is happening in rural Vermont. [It’s] an important piece beyond the food itself.”
Almanack Farm, Chelsea
Meanwhile, in the town of Chelsea, Justin and Rachel Sauerwein had a small homestead farm, where they were raising their family. Justin, who grew up in a farming family in Kansas, doubted he could make a living in agriculture. He began to reconsider when he sold extra beef to friends, and discovered a demand for local, grass-fed meat. Each year, he doubled his herd, eventually wholesaling to restaurants. And so began Almanack Farm.
The business quickly outgrew the homestead, so Justin and Rachel began leasing extra pastureland. Wanting the security that comes with ownership, they started looking for a farm of their own. They approached Sally Sanford about buying a nearby farm where her family had run a dairy. When she agreed, they reached out to VLT about selling a conservation easement. With a ‘yes’ from the land trust, they were able to secure much-needed financing, plus a loan for buying cattle and upgrading infrastructure.
The couple bought the farm in 2018 and quickly set the cattle to ‘mob-graze’ the overgrown pasture back to the original stone walls. Then this year, they conserved 169 acres with VLT. “The combination of land access with financial health is really essential,” said Justin. “These are the two main issues for starting farmers…If you can address those two things, you’re in a good place.”
Onward and Upward
Both farms are now scaling up. Almanack Farm aims to expand the appeal of grass-fed beef. Their 150 cattle are Angus-Wagyu cross-breeds. Almanack’s beef is sold at the South Royalton Market, to Twin Farms resort, and Worthy Burger restaurants. And, responding to demand, Shannon at Strafford Village Farm began a weekly vegetable CSA share, which instantly sold out. She and BJ renovated the old milk parlor of the historic barn into a store. They host events on the land: tomato tastings, Friday markets, and cow-pie bingo fundraisers.
In the end, the security of owning conserved land has set the stage for their dreams to play out. “The overall purpose is to bring the land back, to bring a profitable economic engine to the community,” said Justin. “This model keeps land healthy and open, provides employment and income.”
“What the land trust did, is letting us do our jobs: provide food to our community,” said Shannon. Each conserved farm keeps alive the hope that generations of future Vermont farmers will have that same opportunity.
Story by Sophi Veltrop. Main photo and photo of barn by Caleb Kenna. Photo of the Sauerwein family in the pasture courtesy of Almanack Farm.