Mike Snow is a Thetford resident who started a small business growing wheat, oats, rye, and dry beans on about six acres of rented fields in Fairlee, the nearest farmland he could find. His interest is in the grain itself, and — more broadly — in restoring soil health by non-conventional practices like no-till cropping and crop rotation. He has enjoyed a couple of reasonable harvests and a nascent market for his grain that he grows without artificial inputs like chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.
Now, however, Mike is looking for new land on which to grow his business. This throws Mike into a similar position as young, would-be farmers in our area — scouring the Upper Valley for farmland.
What he has learned in his quest illustrates the difficulties of breaking into farming. Small numbers of acres suitable for a start-up farmer — and that allow room to expand — are almost non-existent. It turns out that good farmland has quietly been consolidated under fewer, larger farms both in our region and in the Champlain Valley. This is both negative and positive. It certainly doesn’t help beginner farmers, but it has had the effect of preventing good agricultural soils from being lost to non-farming development. In the long term, this may be critical. Out west, states that currently supply a significant percent of the country’s food, like California, are becoming increasingly arid and are succumbing to desertification. In the future, we will need all the arable land we can find in places with adequate rainfall.
In the short term, however, this makes it hard for new farmers to enter the business. And it is a reflection of the rather limited land base for farming in Vermont. Much of the good land, and even marginal land like “lowlands” or “wet meadows” (all former wetlands), is taken up by dairy and haying, its sister operation.
As Mike found when he investigated the land of a retiring farmer in the Thetford vicinity, the price of land can also be a barrier. Like it or not, the Upper Valley is experiencing an ongoing influx of well-to-do professionals recruited, for instance, by Dartmouth College, the Medical School, and a growing number of high-tech businesses. These newcomers can more readily afford land at the asking price, and while farms may not generally be purchased as house lots, it nevertheless has the effect of driving up all land prices. Loans for farmers are available through the Farm Service Agency that refers people to Farm Credit and other loan companies. Still, it requires a good business plan and strong farming credentials, plus a down payment or collateral just like other, standard loans. It is often difficult for young farmers with little track record to fulfill the requirements.
In some instances, land trusts like the Vermont Land Trust can alleviate the problem of land scarcity. The VLT conserves farmland and sells it to farmers below the standard market price through a competitive application process. Again, this includes submitting a detailed business plan and profitability projection. The VLT has evolved to meet needs of agriculture at a scale more approximating the needs of a large produce farm.
Lucky are the young farmers from an established farming family. They have the advantage of family land plus the infrastructure and equipment that go with it. Those last two items add to the expense of start-up farmers. As the saying goes, “you’re born into it or you marry into it.” The modern take might add, “or you work a while in tech first.”
It doesn’t stop with land. Start-up farmers must also consider how to corner their share of the market. In the Upper Valley and beyond, the Local Food movement has been a great boost to vegetable farmers and meat and cheese producers. Selling directly to the end consumer cuts out the middleman and gets more money to the farmer. Customers are willing to pay more for local products because they trust their freshness and want to support the region’s farmers. The majority of people still cook their meals at home, in spite of reports that “millennials cook less” and the rise of mail-order meal kits.
However, the Upper Valley is already populated with a number of well-established vegetable farms that have a loyal following directly at farm stands or through the Co-op chain of stores and other retailers. Can the Local Food movement absorb more local farms? Is it possible that the market for joining a CSA (community-supported agriculture program) has become saturated?
Even for established farms the ante is increasing. It appears that to keep customers coming, farm stands are slowly evolving into mini-marts, with freezers of meats and coolers of dairy products that are generally not grown on that farm. They discovered that, on average, people go to three places a week to buy food, and that the farm stand had to make an effort to earn a place on that list. Mike is familiar with this trend. When he managed a farm in Virginia he did the same, even using a local kitchen to make value-added products and prepared foods. The calculation was how much money can people be tempted to spend, compared to how much it would cost to grow or obtain, prepare, and display those salable items.
Wholesaling, rather than retailing to consumers, is another option, and growing a limited range of crops or a single crop for the wholesale market is logistically easier. However there’s significantly more money in consumer sales. And for some products, the wholesale price is dropping. As an example, farmers' earnings have declined nationally from about 40 cents to 18.5 cents for every dollar a consumer spends on pork, even with increasing retail pork prices.
Mike understands that his grain serves a limited market by comparison to fresh produce. He’s been able to sell his wheat and rye grain to home bakers who have a means to mill it, but he wonders how many exist in the Upper Valley. He could grind the grain into flour to increase his market appeal, but he would need to invest in milling equipment and storage since flour is more perishable than un-ground grain.
He is aware that customers may also be lured away by alternative products from mainstream commerce. Huge grain farms in the midwest are handed subsidies by the government to lower the cost of production and keep retail prices low. Small farmers generally cannot compete. Those that stay in business tend to sell to a “niche market” targeted to a particular consumer demographic.
These are the complex considerations in any decision to commit to farming. On top of it all, Mike is determined to farm with soil health as a driving principle — ideally with a crop rotation that includes animals. That, however, only makes economic sense if every phase of the rotation is supported by a market for its products. It is the market that allows farmers to cover their costs so they may afford to live, and, in Mike’s case, so he may practice crop diversification that brings much-needed improvements in soil health.