Orchard Observations: Vermont’s younger farmers

By Megan Humphrey

Shelburne Orchards

Eli Hersh (second from the right) with most of the crew in a pepper field at River Berry Farm.
Eli Hersh (second from the right) with most of the crew in a pepper field at River Berry Farm.

We’re heading in the right direction with regards to farming in Vermont. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of farms has risen by 5 percent, agricultural land has increased by 1 percent, and the market value of agricultural products has gone up 15 percent. However, with the average age of a Vermont farmer at 57.3 years old, we’ll need plenty of young farmers to keep the tradition going.

At 27, Eli Hersh has been farming for six years all over the country, but would like to settle in Vermont and run his own vegetable and beef farm someday. He’s working right now at River Berry Farm and fills in periodically at Maple Wind Farm. During the winter, Hersh moves indoors for employment in area restaurants. Even with his use of local resources such as Northeast Organic Farmers Association (NOFA), the Intervale Center, UVM Extension Service courses, and a pretty specific plan as to how to stay in farming, Hersh will need some help along the way. “I’ll need operating capital, but banks can’t recoup that so it’s hard to get it all started,” he mused. “A lot of new farmers could partner with established farms so that they’d have access to equipment and land without getting in over their heads financially,” Hersh said.

Hersh has a long list of what he loves about farming. He is a creative person, which draws him to both farming and in restaurants. He likes to work with his hands, sees the need for food, feels that farming is real and immediate, wants to be physically tired at the end of the day, and appreciates the “Buy Local” concept. “When you sell a product here, the money stays here so it benefits the local economy,” Hersh said. “I love that farming generates wealth for the whole community,” he explained.

Cayla Tepper, 24, obtained some farming skills in Italy and Scotland and then worked at the now-defunct UVM student-run farm, Common Ground. After that, she and her boyfriend “planned and organized as much as we could in a short time to run our own small farming venture in Sheldon.” Their pursuit ended when they burned out “quicker than we expected-—physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially.” When her relationship split up, Tepper moved back to Burlington in order to make back the money she had lost. For now, she is “perfectly content as part of a production crew at Pitchfork Farm.” As a graduate in Environmental Studies, Tepper feels passionate about local food, food access, food justice, and is drawn to farming for many reasons. Although she enjoys eating at “awesome restaurants in Burlington and seeing your farm’s name on the menu,” Tepper’s not sure how farming will play a role in her future.

And what about older farmers when they decide that they’ve had enough of farming? Nick Cowles and Terry Hotaling have worked together at Shelburne Orchards for almost 35 years and they’re both 64 years old, just above the median age. “My hope is certainly that the orchard continues, hopefully within our family,” Cowles said. “My second choice would be that someone who knows the apple business comes along to purchase the place and keeps growing apples,” he concluded.

Tepper appreciates the chance to work with older farmers. “I think I would be much worse off without finding older mentors and I feel grateful to be able to work for them,” she said. “People my age think we know everything, and we don’t,” Tepper noted. It’s also helpful for older farmers to realize that they can “gain assurance that we are here to work hard if they let us and allow us to soak up some serious knowledge,” she concluded.

A successful collaboration between older and younger farmers is apparent with the establishment of Bread and Butter Farm, located on the border of South Burlington and Shelburne. Farmers Corie Pierce and Adam Wilson worked with the Vermont Land Trust in order to shift ownership from the Leduc Family, who had owned the farm for over 100 years prior. “The Land Trust supported us through our application process and beyond, and we know how much work they did before we even came on the scene,” Pierce explained. The Land Trust, the Leduc family, neighbors, both towns, and other organizations allowed Pierce and Wilson to make the smooth transition. Bread and Butter Farm grows animals and vegetables, sells whole grain, bakes bread, has a farm store, and hosts a weekly seasonal Burger Night with live music.

Fortunately, younger farmers don’t need to go it alone. Mary Peabody works for UVM Extension. The New Farmer Network there consists of UVM Extension, Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT), Rutland Area Farm and Food Link, Vital Communities, and the Intervale Center. Because of this collaboration, we can eliminate any duplication of services and, at the same time, make sure new farmers are aware of available programs,” Peabody explained. While women make up a substantial portion of Vermont’s new farmers, “women often have different learning styles and preferences that require a different approach,” she said. Grant funding has allowed the New Farmer Network to offer programs geared toward new women farmers.

The lack of financial resources is a common thread among the farmers with whom I spoke. Regarding the next generation of farmers, Cowles stated that “farmers really want to own their land, but the price makes it tough for younger farmers.” That particular challenge will need to be addressed if we want farming to continue as older farmers finish up their careers in Vermont. Thankfully, younger and older farmers can learn from and lean on each other as they strive to put their passion into providing food for the rest of us.

Hersh suggested some other resources for farmers who are trying to establish themselves. All of these (and others) can help new farmers to obtain both education and financial assistance.

• The Carrot Project was founded in 2005 by Dorothy Suput in order to “support small and midsized farms and farm-related businesses through expandable accessible financing, and increasing farm operations’ ability”. Please go to www.thecarrotproject.org.

• The Farm Transfer Network of New England is a network of professionals and organizations that provides farm transfer expertise and support. FTNNE participants offer education, individual and family consultations, referrals, and resource materials. The goal of the Farmland Access Program is to provide farmers with opportunities to purchase or lease affordable farmland so that folks can start up or expand agricultural businesses. The program works with both sides as farm families pass their farms along. Please check www.farmtransfernewengland.net.

• The Intervale Center’s mission is to strengthen community food systems through a variety of avenues. The Center offers farm incubation, beginning farmer support, and consulting among other services. You can find additional info at www.intervale.org.

• NOFA-VT is a non-profit association of farmers, gardeners, and consumers working to promote an economically viable and ecologically sound Vermont food system. Go to www.nofavt.org for resources.

• The United States Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency’s Direct Farm Operating loans are a valuable resource to establish, maintain, and strengthen farms and ranches. Under its direct loan program, FSA loan officers are responsible for the loan application process and funding is available through Congressional appropriation. More info can be found at www.fsa.usda.gov.

• The University of Vermont Extension’s New Farmer Project is an initiative of the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture and exists to help new farmers establish and maintain successful agricultural operations. Please check their website at www.uvm.edu/newfarmer.