According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, Vermont lost more than 500 farm businesses between 2012 and 2017. Among the most daunting challenges many farmers will face is deciding how to pass the farm on. What happens to that land depends on each farmer’s transition plan. VLT strives to help farmers make sure their land stays farmed.
This year, the younger generations of two farming families in Franklin County are growing their businesses through their work with VLT. Thanks to the funding that came with conservation, they are on stronger financial footing and are keeping the land in the family.
Sheldon beef and maple business in transition
Ryan Harrness is reinvigorating his family’s farm in Sheldon with a beef herd and a sugaring venture. His parents, Tom and Liza, received the land from Tom’s parents when they were married and, in 2003, conserved the farm. This year, Tom and Liza added an ‘option to purchase at agricultural value’ to their conservation easement to help make sure that the property remains affordable and stays in the hands of farmers.
Conservation funding reduced their debt and gave Ryan the capital to build a sugarhouse. Ryan has 13,000 taps, the majority on neighboring conserved land. He also keeps 25 beef cattle and hopes to buy more. Tom lends a hand with his son’s sugaring business and sells round bales.
“Our main goal was to be able to transition the farm to our son and put him in a position to succeed,” said Tom. “Since we can also protect water quality and wildlife habitat at the same time, it’s a win-win for everyone.” Ryan now co-owns the land with his parents and will eventually come into full ownership as his business takes off.
Fairfax now has an elk farm
In Fairfax, two brothers are transforming their family’s former dairy in a unique way. Ben and Dylan Palmer (pictured above) bought 92 acres from their late grandmother, Wanda Palmer, in 2017. They worked with VHCB’s Farm & Forest Viability Program to develop a new business plan for a specialty product: elk meat. And they conserved their land.
The brothers bought their herd of Rocky Mountain Elk a little over a year ago, and plan to expand the herd from 47 animals to more than 100. Vermont Heritage Elk is the largest producer of elk meat in Vermont and sells to local restaurants and families.
Funds from the conservation helped Ben and Dylan seed their venture and change the type of agriculture the farmland was being used for. “Conserving the land gives us the financial boost to expand the herd and to reduce our debt,” explained Ben.
For both Franklin County farms, planning, professional advice, and conservation resulted in a sustainable transition of farmland. In this way, conservation goes beyond its traditional purpose of saving land from development. It is also a tool to immediately improve the lives of Vermont farmers and infuse our local food economy with vitality.
Story by Sophi Veltrop. Funded by VHCB (Harrness property). Funded by VHCB, with matching funds from USDA-NRCS (Palmer property).