Rogers Farmstead: Farmland Access with the Vermont Land Trust
The Vermont Land Trust’s Farmland Access Program aims to match farmers with affordable land to grow crops or raise animals. Successful farmland conservation is more than keeping farmland in farming. It involves building relationships with aspiring new farmers, establishing trust with existing farmers who wish to sell their land, and connecting new farmers to agronomic, ecological, and financial resources that will enable them to succeed. Finding the right owner for a certain parcel requires flexibility through ownership transitions, and that right owner must design a business that deals with challenges inherent to agriculture and specific to their parcel of land.
On 133 acres next to the Dog River in Berlin, the Rogers Farmstead grows organic grain, raises cattle for milk and meat, and operates an on-site micro-creamery. Originally conserved by VLT in 2002, this property went through multiple ownership transitions before Nate and Jessie Rogers acquired it in 2011.
Nate Rogers connected with the Farmland Access Program in the late 2000’s, near the end of his career as a technician for IBM. Having grown up on a dairy farm, he had decided to get back into farming, and began drafting a business plan with assistance from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board’s Farm and Forest Viability Program. Part of the business plan involved articulating which attributes he most valued in a piece of farmland. But, Rogers also wanted to leave room for the plan to address the demands and attributes of the farmland he would eventually purchase. The initial plan thus gestured to a balance of tensions: how can an applicant develop a concrete business plan for a hypothetical piece of property? Years later, Rogers commented that what farmers must do is adapt their plans to what their land can support.
Nate and Jessie Rogers did not immediately secure land through VLT, but the two parties maintained a relationship over the years. Knowing the particulars of the Rogers’ vision for a farm, VLT knew to contact them when the Berlin parcel came up for sale. The property addressed three key priorities for the Rogers: it is located on fertile soil rather than clay or rocky soil; it is near to the larger markets of Montpelier and Barre; and it is within commuting distance of off-farm jobs, which allows Jessie Rogers to continue her career and provide the family with financial security.
The Rogers, cautious about going into debt to fund their business expansion, would not have been able to purchase the property if it had not been conserved by VLT: the easement on the property decreased its market value, bringing the cost within reach. Funding over time has also come from the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative, which gave the Rogers a grant for equipment to process, dry, and store their grain. The Rogers’ recent decision to build an on-farm micro-creamery relied on funding from a river corridor easement sale through VLT.
Making the Rogers Farmstead a viable business has meant contending with the Dog River. Hurricane Irene, in 2011, stripped several areas of prime topsoil away from two acres adjacent to the river, giving warning of what is likely to come in future storms. The Rogers and VLT mutually decided to place a river corridor easement on land they owned adjacent to the Dog River. The easement gave VLT the rights to manage the river channel in that area. VLT purchased this easement using funds from the state of Vermont’s Ecosystem Restoration Program. VLT has planted a fifty-foot riparian buffer along the river to stabilize the bank and mitigate erosion from the cultivated fields. VLT helped arrange volunteers from Keurig Green Mountain, the Mad-Dog chapter of Trout Unlimited, and their own staff, while connecting the Rogers with the expertise of the Friends of the Winooski River, the Intervale, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. VLT and the Rogers chose to mechanically manage the existing riparian species – knotweed – rather than spraying the invasive plant with pesticides.
The partnership between the Rogers and VLT has brought together local-scale climate resilience and farm profitability. The Land Trust’s focus on riparian zones and the Rogers’ business needs complemented each other. VLT has helped the Rogers respond to multiple threats facing farmland: one danger was that the land would not remain in agricultural production; another was that the farmers who ended up on the land would not have the business support to succeed; a third was that severe storms would render the farm less profitable. VLT helped defend against these fates through nimble partnership with different constituent groups: younger farmers in the farmland-access program, older farmers looking to sell their land, volunteers willing to help plant trees and pull knotweed, riparian management knowledge of the Intervale Center and business coaching by the Vermont Farm and Forest Viability Program.
After many defensive steps, the future looks bright for the Rogers Farmstead. The Rogers Farmstead has recently been featured in several publications about local grain as the “last frontier” of the local-foods movement. Elmore Mountain Bread uses Rogers grain for many of their breads, including Vermont Redeemer, made with a special variety of Green Mountain State wheat. Nate Rogers continues to think about how to further support a local grain system in Vermont, including the possibility of an on-farm stone-milled granary. For now, the Roger’s Jersey-cow herd and newly built, on-site micro-creamery has them focused on the business of milk and yogurt; their dairy products are now available at about a dozen different food stores in central Vermont. Once they hone their niche in Vermont’s dairy aisles, Nate is excited to turn his creative mind towards how to process and market Vermont-grown grain. More than defending what they have, the Rogers are on their way to greater success.
Scott Berkley contributed to this story.