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Working the land ... Vermont values its working lands - but who will work them?

2019-06-29

By Elodie Reed , Landscapes correspondent, as seen in the Manchester Journal: https://www.manchesterjournal.com/stories/working-the-land,578183

DUMMERSTON — Somewhere along Bunker Road, not far from the center of Dummerston, the asphalt gives way to dirt. Overhead, the shade of leafy canopy transitions to the sun-soak of open fields.

And around one sharp corner, an otherwise quiet, rural route grows busy.

Parked cars line the roadside next to The Bunker Farm's big, red barn. People from nearby Putney and from as far away as the state of Florida come to pick up meat through the farm share and for the plant sale, the maple syrup and a pleasant Saturday afternoon in the country. The visitors sit on the grass, admire the newborn grey calf on the hill and chat with some of the farm's owners.

Co-owner Noah Hoskins said the open nature of The Bunker Farm, from on-farm sales to school group visits, is part of a concerted effort to share agricultural traditions with more people.

"That really is a reflection of our desire to help people in this community feel connected to the landscape in which we live," he said. "[It] is such an important part of the Vermont identity."

It may be the most important part of being a Vermonter, at least according to one statewide survey. The Council on the Future of Vermont's 2009 report, "Imagining Vermont: Values and Vision for the Future," includes one telephone poll about what residents valued.

The value prized by the highest number of people polled — 97 percent — was the "working landscape and its heritage."

This core Vermont value, however, faces a problem: succession, or lack thereof.

According to the 2016 American Farmland Trust and Land For Good report, "Gaining Access, Gaining Insights," nearly one-third of the state's farmers are 65 and older. Of those "senior farmers," 91 percent don't have an operator under 45, a "young farmer," working with them.

The majority of Vermont farmers are 45 and older. Between 2002 and 2012, the overall number of farmers under 45 dropped by 19 percent.

The report states that, due to issues such as economic viability, there is a disconnect between older and younger farmers, which leads to an "obvious concern" about the loss or abandonment of agricultural land, infrastructure and commodity production.

"Over the next 10 (to) 20 years, over one-quarter of Vermont farmers are likely to exit farming," the report reads. "The 363,645 acres they manage and $1.2 billion in land and agricultural infrastructure they own will change hands in one way or another."

The Bunker Farm

One way the young operators of The Bunker Farm could buy their 169 acres in 2014 was that there were four thirty-somethings that went in on it together: Hoskins, his wife, Helen O'Donnell, her sister, Jen, and Jen's husband, Mike Euphraht, who are all collectively (and legally) known as the O'Donnell Family Co.

Another was that they worked with Vermont Land Trust's Farmland Access Program, which connects farmers with affordable farmland. The land trust buys farms at risk of development, asks for business proposals from interested farmers, then sells the land with a conservation easement in place to prevent future development.

To purchase The Bunker Farm's easement, for instance, the Vermont Land Trust raised $575,000.

"We were able to afford the land at agricultural value," Hoskins said. "The development rights that the land trust retained after the sale were more than 50 percent of the total price."

Prior to buying The Bunker Farm through the Vermont Land Trust, Hoskins said he and his co-owners were involved in agriculture on his family's "very small-scale" farm in Putney, on some rented land across the street and at other nearby operations like The Walker Farm in Dummerston.

"We wouldn't necessarily have pursued this opportunity if it meant leaving our community," Hoskins said. Those local relationships, he added, have been vital to The Bunker Farm's success, from selling products through The Walker Farm to receiving financial support from the Dummerston Farmland Protection Committee.

Jack Manix, who, along with his family, runs The Walker Farm, sits on the Farmland Protection Committee.

"What the town does is contribute funds to show these other groups that it's important to the town to preserve this farmland," he said.

While the Dummerston Select Board asked the committee to decrease its allocation from $5,000 to $2,500 this past budget season, town residents voted at the 2019 Town Meeting to bump the number back up to $5,000.

"The town is very supportive," Manix said. "We're very fortunate."

Resources

Manix is among the well-positioned "senior farmers" in Vermont. He is 70 years old, and while he is "not ready to lay down on the compost pile quite yet," he and his wife, Karen, are thinking about the future of their family's flower and organic produce operation.

"I'm fortunate my son and daughter work here," Manix said. "Even my grandkids are interested. We're not worried about losing it."

In addition to younger generations, he said there are well-trained employees committed to overseeing various "departments" within the farm.

"We have incredible people, young people that are heading up those departments," Manix said. "We have a transition team."

To orchestrate that transition, The Walker Farm is working with University of Vermont Extension, which is one of several providers of one-on-one assistance to farmers through the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board's Vermont Farm and Forest Viability Program.

"We're seeing a rapid uptick in the last three years of farmers really ready to talk about succession," said Ela Chapin, the viability program's director. "We also work with a lot of farmers seeking farmland."

For younger and beginning operators, University of Vermont Extension offers online courses, in-person education and one-on-one technical assistance through its New Farmer Project.

"The New Farmer Project has focused mostly on helping people lay a really strong foundation for making decisions about where farming fits in their life, what size, what scale, what mix of enterprises," said Beth Holtzman, the program's coordinator.

Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets deputy secretary Alyson Eastman said that, over the past decade, the state has continued to build infrastructure to support both ends of the farm succession equation.

"In Vermont, I'd say we're very fortunate to have many service providers in place," she said. What remains difficult, Eastman added, is for farmers to know when and how to start that succession talk.

"It's a difficult conversation," she said. "It's not just their business. Oftentimes that's their homestead as well."

Keeping the farm(s)

Long before Noah Hoskins became a co-owner of The Bunker Farm, his great-grandparents worked a 500-acre New Jersey dairy. In the 1970s, Hoskins' parents, aunt and uncle bought their small Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) organic dairy in Putney and the New Jersey farm was turned into housing developments.

"The loss of that is heavily felt in our family," Hoskins said.

Due to structural challenges within the dairy industry, the trend of more diversified farm operations on smaller tracts of land and succession struggles, there are similar losses both looming and already underway in Vermont, according to the University of Vermont Extension and Vermont Housing & Conservation Board report, "A 2018 Exploration of the Future of Vermont Agriculture."

"The marketplace has failed the farmer," the report states. "In our lifetimes, Vermont may lose the agricultural foundation of our working landscape, with all it means to our quality of life and the statewide value from agricultural exports ($776 million annually), the agricultural economy ($2.6 billion annually), the recreational economy ($1.51 billion annually), and the tourist economy (almost $3 billion annually)."

The same report applauds the resources already available, such as the assistance available through University of Vermont Extension and the the Vermont Land Trust's conservation easements. It also notes that these existing efforts are "unlikely to reverse the overall trend and prevent the impending drop in agricultural activity due to a massive loss of active farm operations and a trend towards smaller acreage farm models."

The report adds that there are further ways to help preserve Vermont's working landscape, among them programs that reward responsible land stewards as well as legal and tax structures to ease future succession.

Between the financial support from the Dummerston Farmland Protection Committee and the O'Donnell Family Co.'s classification as a domestic nonprofit corporation, The Bunker Farm has benefited from both kinds of strategies.

"We're fortunate to have a lot of that as part of our startup," Hoskins said.

While he and his co-owners are grateful to share agricultural traditions with their children, Hoskins said the future of The Bunker Farm isn't dependent on generational succession. Due to the conservation easement and a more formal business structure, the O'Donnell Family Co. can have peace of mind that their 169 acres of Vermont's working landscape won't be lost.

"If our children decide to sell it, it would go into another farm business," Hoskins said.

Elodie Reed is a frequent contributor to Southern Vermont Landscapes.