The Vermont Food Funders Network is a learning network of funders who provide grants and loans to strengthen the Vermont food system. The Vermont Food Funders Network focused its April, 2016 meeting on farmland access and affordability. Many of Vermont’s older farmers are retiring, and new farmers are running enterprises which require different land configurations. But, even if appropriate land is available, can a farmer afford to lease or own it? We were joined by guests from the Intervale Center, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, Land for Good, Dirt Capital Partners, and the Vermont Land Trust to discuss the role of philanthropy in helping farmers find suitable land and afford to lease or purchase it for their operations.
We also spent time with Ben Butterfield, who runs a pastured laying hen operation, Besteyfield Farm, at the Intervale Center. Ben has been searching for 10 acres of subprime agricultural land for lease or purchase in Chittenden County for two years. Ben’s story illustrated the challenges of matching farm seekers and land: neighbors don’t always like to have farms next door; landowners can have unreasonable financial or aesthetic expectations of the farmer; it takes a very long time to match a farmer with land; and land plays a critical role in helping a farmer reach a viable scale. Ben can’t leave his off-farm job or invest in infrastructure until he can grow his operation to a larger scale, but to do that he needs to move out of the Intervale.
It is hard for Vermont’s small farmers to find appropriate, affordable land. Small-scale farmers need to be close to the places where they sell their products. For instance, Ben would like to find land within 30 minutes of Burlington so that he can continue to deliver eggs to his markets, but Chittenden County has the highest land prices in the state. Though unconventional, small farmers are running economically viable operations. They don’t need and can’t afford large parcels. Conservation easements are one of the key tools for making land affordable for farmers. But a land trust isn’t likely to conserve a small parcel.
Fortunately, many of Vermont’s key food system and land conservation organizations are focusing on creative approaches to ensuring that farmers can continue to find and farm land in Vermont. The Farm to Plate Network has a taskforce devoted to Farmland Access and a Farmland Access and Stewardship working group. Ben spoke about the value of farming at the Intervale to build experience and a viable business plan for when he establishes his own farm. Mike Ghia spoke about work Land for Good does to coach landowners so they have reasonable expectations of a farmer’s needs and, conversely, to coach farmers and connect them with leasing opportunities. The Vermont Land Trust’s Farmland Access Program has helped farmers purchase or lease affordable farmland through conservation easements, and also is supporting a pilot in Windsor County where several small farms are co-located on a large former dairy farm. And the Castanea Foundation is piloting a lease arrangement in Bennington County where the farmer builds equity that can be accessed when he or she purchases a farm or retires.