Vermont cultivating new crop: Farmers
This is an article that appeared Sunday in "The Rutland Herald" about new
farmer efforts by RAFFL and also about Farm-to-Plate. I wasn't really clear
from the quote of Will Stevens in the article what he meant exactly by "...
told the group he would speak to the legislative leadership about developing
such a program."? Specifically, what did he mean by "such a program" mean?
The article also begs the question, should this listserve opened up to
beginner farmers? Or a new list? Or form a Facebook group? This could all
be done easily without money. Maybe something to discuss here and/or at the
Rutland Herald & Times Argus
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Vermont cultivating new crop: Farmers
Author(s): STEPHANIE M. PETERS
STAFF WRITER Date: January 17, 2010 Section: NEWS04
What does it take for someone who's interesting in farming to get
their business off the ground in Vermont? Over its five-year lifetime, the
Rutland Area Food and Farm Link has informally considered this question as
it has helped young farmers establish relationships with their more
experienced peers, directed retailers searching for local products to area
growers, and sought out space for an incubator farm.
Last fall, however, to better quantify the interest in farming and
associated needs, the organization put out a call to find out how many "new
farmers" are out there, holding a packed mixer in downtown Rutland in
November. More than half of those who turned out were faces unfamiliar to
the group's staff, according to Executive Director Tara Kelly.
Her organization isn't the only one asking the question, however.
The Farm to Plate Initiative, an offshoot of the Vermont Sustainable
Jobs Fund, has made the issue of "growing" new farmers one of the pillars of
its research. The initiative was established after the passage during the
last legislative session of Act 54, calling for the development of a 10-year
plan for strengthening the state's farm and food system.
The organization began touring each of the state's counties in the
fall, asking the agricultural community to weigh in on questions ranging
from what resources new farmers need to what can be done to better promote
and distribute locally grown foods.
A full report is due to the Legislature by July, but the group working
on the project expects the research phase will continue through the spring,
according to Ellen Kahler, the jobs fund's executive director. The final
county food summit was scheduled for Friday in Brattleboro.
Although the feedback the Farm to Plate Initiative has received is in
its raw stages, and much of it is anecdotal or the product of brainstorming
sessions, some clear needs of new farmers are emerging, according to Kit
Perkins, Farm to Plate project coordinator.
Among them: access to land and equipment; capital that can be tapped
without extensive credit or business plans, both of which take time to
cultivate and which go hand-in-hand when approaching lenders; viability
around the price growers can get for their products; and mentorship.
"Many people are getting into it with absolutely no farming
background, instead making the choice out of a love for the outdoors, a love
of growing, feeding people or being their own bosses," said Perkins, who has
facilitated each of the roundtable sessions for new farmers. "There's a real
soul connection to food, and to actually grow it is really satisfying for
According to Perkins, one of the first roadblocks is access to land.
For instance, many of the available parcels are too large for someone just
starting out to either manage or afford, which is where incubator farms like
the Intervale Center in Burlington become valuable resources. Perkins is a
former executive director there.
"Leases are OK, they can work really well, but again there's no equity
being built," she said.
With incubators, growers who are looking to move on can sell their
share and take that equity with them, she said.
Another arrangement growing in popularity is private landowners'
leasing some of their acreage to aspiring farmers, Perkins said. Several
agricultural groups in the state have taken to surveying private landowners
to determine interest in those types of deals, she said.
Networks and money
At the new farmer roundtable at the Dec. 8 Addison County Food Summit
in Middlebury, each of these issues was brought up by the eclectic group of
educators, farmers, nonprofit employees and young people who are trying to
crack the industry.
After nearly an hour of batting about their own experiences and
desires, the two assets the group thought would be most critical to new
farmers didn't focus directly on the land problem.
Galen Helms, a 20-year-old who has experienced four growing seasons as
an apprentice at Last Resort Farm in Monkton, suggested the development of
Farmbook.org, a farmer-centric Web site that he envisions will not only
allow farmers to connect with each other, but assemble in one place a list
of resources ranging from feed or fertilizer to financing.
"It's going to happen. It needs to happen," he said to the group.
The group also liked the idea of microloans or revolving lending for
farming, noting that in that scenario "success breeds success."
Will Stevens, a state representative from Shoreham who owns and
operates Golden Russet Farm with his wife, told the group he would speak to
the legislative leadership about developing such a program.
Who they are
According to Kelly of the Rutland Area Food and Farm Link, farmers in
Rutland County are expressing similar needs, for which the organization will
continue to brainstorm ways to provide assistance.
Kelly said she and India Burnett Farmer, program director for the
organization, were also encouraged by what they heard at the Rutland County
Food Summit, which took place Nov. 12 at Green Mountain College.
The "questions they're asking and the information they're uncovering
essentially confirms the work we've been doing," Kelly said.
So what does the landscape of new farmers in Rutland County look like?
About 35 people returned a survey from the November mixer asking them
to categorize themselves and describe their needs. Of those, about half
characterized themselves as new farmers, while the rest saw themselves as
farm workers who hoped at some point to break out on their own.
The average length of time they'd been growing was three and a half
While a few were focusing on dairy, the majority considered themselves
diversified farmers producing a mix of vegetables, meat and fruit. Several
expressed interest in exploring niche markets like grains, honey or fiber.
Most said they work another job in addition to farming, although a few
described themselves as full-time farmers, according to Burnett Farmer.
Burnett Farmer described the mixer as "just the kickoff" of the effort
the organization will direct to cultivating new farming businesses. Although
planning is still under way, one small step the group took last month was to
direct new farmers toward farm business planning classes being offered in
Rutland this winter by University of Vermont Extension.
They're also looking forward to the unveiling of the Farm to Plate
Initiative's recommendations to the Legislature, for which a statewide
summit is expected in the fall, according to Kahler. She and Perkins
encourage anyone wishing to comment on what's working and what's not in
Vermont's farm and food system to contact them at [log in to unmask]
"There's all this interest and all these people coming to local food,
and they all get it from different perspectives," Kahler said. "But there
are also an awful lot of folks who haven't (been exposed to local foods)
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