New Farms Take Root in Vermont
Celebrating 100 Farmland Access Projects
Jon Wagner and Karin Bellemare were operating a CSA on rented land on Long Island and feeling a little boxed in. There were the challenges of farming in a place without many farms. “We had some chicken tractors going in a field we were leasing, and the guy abutting came over screaming ‘Get those things out of here! You’re ruining my view!’,” remembers Jon. And, with sky-high land prices, land ownership was only a dream.
In southern New Hampshire, Mark and Dahlia Dill ran a haying operation on leased land while working other jobs. The same was true for Mark’s parents, Chuck and Lisa Dill, who’d searched for affordable farmland in the expanding Boston commuter zone for decades. “Literally every acre of hayland was leased,” says Mark of their farm business. “The amount of open ground that was lost [to development] in my childhood made a huge impact on me. It’s part of what made me want to be a farmer.”
Today Karin and Jon operate Bear Roots Farm in Williamstown and South Barre; they’ve been so successful that this past year they bought and renovated a general store in Middlesex and opened the year-round Roots Farm Market.
The extended Dill clan now operate Chandler Pond Farm in Wheelock where they raise beef cattle, hay, veggies, blueberries, and strawberries, and do some sugaring; their self-serve farmstand is open 12 hours a day.
100 Farms and Counting
Both families purchased their farms through VLT’s Farmland Access Program, which helps entrepreneurial farmers find affordable farms of their own. This year, with the conservation of Strafford Village Farm, VLT reached the milestone of 100 successful Farmland Access projects.
VLT began to craft the program in the early 2000s in response to a growing crisis in Vermont agriculture. Land values were surging, the farmer population was aging (part of a continuing state and national trend), and a new generation of “farm kids” were opting for other professions. More and more family farms were up for sale at a price beyond the reach of most new farmers.
“Affordable land is a real barrier for beginning farmers and farmers looking to expand,” says VLT’s Tyler Miller. “We hope to create more opportunities for farmers to establish, run, and expand great agricultural businesses.”
How the program works varies, depending on the farm. Sometimes, VLT quickly buys a farm at risk of development, searches for a farmer, conserves the land, and resells it for less. Other times, VLT plays the role of matchmaker, helping retiring farmers find new buyers who will continue their legacy. “We find we are always learning, adapting, changing our approach to meet the needs of farmers and a changing farm economy,” says VLT’s Siobhan Smith.
The program’s first project was the Elmer Farm in East Middlebury—90 acres that had been owned and farmed by the same family since the 1840s. VLT bought the farm in June 2006 and by October of that same year a couple purchased the farm and were on their way. In the interim, VLT had secured funding to conserve the land, which reduced the price the new farmers paid for the property.
These days, however, farm transitions often happen much slower.
“We’ve learned that providing farmers with a longer path to ownership is important to their long-term success,” says Siobhan. “In some cases, it can take three years or longer to fully complete a Farmland Access Project.”
Karin and Jon leased their first property from VLT for 11 months before purchasing. The Dill family leased Chandler Pond Farm from its previous owner for 20 months before buying it. “Leasing made it easier to get onto the farm,” says Mark. “Starting the business is the hard part.”
After several years of building their business on their first farm in South Barre, Karin and Jon decided that the tillable land didn’t leave them enough room for pest and disease management—so, they again turned to VLT. They went through a competitive business proposal process and were chosen to buy farmland in Williamstown. The farm had been conserved by the now-retired farmers Gary and Susan Storrs, who were happy VLT helped find hardworking farmers to buy the land from them.
The Farmland Access Program didn’t just make a difference, says Jon, “It is the difference. Without VLT, it just wouldn’t have happened.”
The Dills purchased their farm from Molly Davies, who had bought and conserved it back in 2005 with the idea of supporting new farmers who wanted to start businesses. She leased it to several farmers over the years and then decided to work with VLT to find new farmers to buy the land outright. After VLT chose the Dill family for the merits of their business plan, Molly began leasing the land to them while they launched their business.
Looking around both farms—the new greenhouses, the barn renovations, restored soil, a superb herd of beef cattle—you can feel the energy driving both businesses and their impact on their communities.
Investing in the Future of Farming
Even with over 100 successful Farmland Access Projects and so many new farm businesses created, there is much more work to do. VLT has nearly 400 farmers signed up on on its “farm seeker” list. Meanwhile VLT is getting more requests from farmers looking to retire or to sell their land, but who want to see the land they’ve stewarded for so long stay in farming.
“The need to help new and beginning farmers buy farms has never been greater,” explains Nick Richardson, VLT’s president.
One way that VLT can help is by buying more farms in transition and, if needed, holding on to them longer, so farmers have time to get their businesses off the ground. “We’re working with key partners and supporters to raise a new Farmland Futures Fund to do just this,” says Nick. “It will be a big effort, but the continued success of farming in our state is so important that we must take on this challenge.”
Mark Dill describes his family as the first owner-farmers on their piece of land in decades. Karin and Jon’s South Barre farm hadn’t been tilled for over 20 years. The Middlesex store they renovated had been run-down and closed for years. The ripple effect of these new businesses is bringing new vitality to their communities.
“It’s always a work in progress here, you’re always learning,” says Mark. “There’s a lot of things we have improved on, but I don’t think you’re ever done improving.”
Story by Gaen Murphree. Photos of Chandler Pond Farm by Caleb Kenna and of Bear Roots Farm by Paul E. Richardson.