Celebrating 40 Years of Learning and Growing on the Land: Changes in Farm Conservation

Red Barn at River View Farm

In the Vermont Land Trust’s early years, conserving a single farm felt like a major accomplishment.

But in the following decades, VLT’s farmland conservation program has gotten a lot bigger, more sophisticated, and has had more far-reaching results.

Since it was founded in 1977, the land trust has conserved 976 parcels of farmland totaling almost 204,000 acres. Many of those farms are now in large blocks of farmland that are, in effect, protected landscape-scale farming districts.

Vermont remains the most farmed state in New England, and VLT has played a major role in that by preserving the land base vital to Vermont agriculture. However, it’s no longer sufficient to simply stop development of farmland.

Conservation Has a Role in a Vibrant Farm Economy

“We’re really thinking about stewarding the enterprise,” said Siobhan Smith, VLT’s Vice-President for Conservation and Stewardship. “Our staff is out there, working with farmers to help them stay viable.” That requires boots-on-the-ground contact with individual farmers, and a willingness to think in new ways. “There’s going to be a future for Vermont agriculture. It’s just going to look different,” Smith said.

By protecting good agricultural soils and farmers’ access to the land, VLT can help secure that future, whatever form it takes. VLT’s Farmland Access Program is pioneering approaches to farm affordability. The land trust also connects farmers to a variety of services and programs, such as the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board’s (VHCB) Farm and Forest Viability Program. Often conservation enhancements can bring in much-needed cash, and help strengthen the farm’s operation.

A Solution for River View Farm in Putney

River View Farm, in the southeastern Vermont town of Putney was one of the first farms conserved by VLT, and the first farm conserved with a grant from VHCB. The farm has been used as a dairy, a sheep farm, and for hay production. It’s an example of how a farm can grow and evolve over time and how conservation plays a part.

Paul Harlow, who bought River View Farm in 2014, has been farming in southeastern Vermont since he was a boy. At 66, he is wiry, energetic, and articulate. In the four decades since he bought the home farm in Westminster from his father, he has built up a major organic vegetable operation in the fertile Connecticut River Valley. He now owns roughly 400 acres, of which 300 acres are producing crops.

His location, right next to Interstate 91, helps him sell his vegetables to the Boston market; trucks from Whole Foods and other retailers pull into his yard regularly during the summer. The scale of Harlow’s operation seems, at times, to surprise even him.

“We’re selling $400,000 worth of kale every year,” he says, shaking his head. “Can you imagine that? Nearly half a million dollars from kale?”

However, Harlow was having trouble meeting the demand for his high-quality organic produce until he was able to purchase River View Farm.

To make the farm more affordable, Paul worked with VLT to amend the old easement, adding stronger conservation measures that addressed water quality and the land’s future availability to working farmers. Funding for these further conservation restrictions came from VHCB.

Conserving important ecological areas and protecting water quality has become a regular part of farmland conservation for VLT. Because River View Farm fronts the Connecticut River, Harlow agreed to remove several acres from crop production to allow vegetation to grow naturally in an area along the river. This will help prevent erosion and protect a significant natural area—seven acres of floodplain forest. Such buffer areas between cropland and rivers also provide important wildlife habitat.

To ensure that farmland will stay in active farming, VLT now employs a tool — an Option to Purchase at Agricultural Value (OPAV). This option gives VLT the right to buy a farm at its agricultural value should the farmer attempt to sell it to a non-farmer (family members are exempt).  By selling an OPAV, Paul was able to offset some of the cost of buying Riverview Farm and will help make sure the farm remains in agriculture.

Farm Succession: The Next Challenge for Vermont

Because he’s in his 60s, Harlow has begun to think about transferring the farm to a new generation of farmers. Fortunately, in his case, his son and other young farmers are interested in forming a consortium to buy the farm and keep it in production.

The question of farmland succession is a continuing one for the Vermont Land Trust, since more than $3 billion worth of Vermont farms are being run by farmers age 65 or older. Fortunately, there is no shortage of young farmers eager to get onto the land. Farmland Access Director Jon Ramsay noted that he has a database of some 350 aspiring farmers. But there are often difficulties in actually getting new farmers situated on specific pieces of land.

And so Ramsay helps the new farmers through whatever difficulties may arise in finding the right farm, financing it, and making it a viable and continuing operation.

“The goal is to see these farms remain working farms,” he said.

In places like the Mettowee Valley in Rupert and Pawlet, the Champlain Valley, and parts of far-northern Vermont, the land trust has conserved landscape-scale contiguous blocks of farmland, some as large as 7,000 acres.

These are important in keeping farming a going enterprise in Vermont because they help make it economically feasible to maintain feed stores, heavy equipment repair shops, and other elements of the agricultural infrastructure.

“We need all kinds of farms in Vermont,” Ramsay said. “If these lands are available, then they can stay productive into the future.”                                                

This story appeared in our 2017 Spring Newsletter. Story by Tom Slayton.