Jericho Settlers Farm

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Summary of Operation:

  • 70 acres total land (30 acres of certified organic vegetables on home farm property, another farm in Richmond that has 40 acres of tillable land)
  • Grass fed lamb (30-50/yr for meat), broiler chickens on pasture (1000), pigs on pasture (50), laying hens (1200)
  • 2 heated greenhouses, 8 unheated
  • Sell 75% wholesale, 25% CSA/farm stand: “I enjoy selling wholesale; that relationship is just as important to me as our relationship with a CSA customer”
  • On farm CSA as well as remote drop offs that are on same route as wholesale deliveries
  • Customer base: primarily greater Burlington area, Waterbury, and Stowe, distributors out of state (Black River Produce and Farmers to You), Deep Root: cooperative of member farms from Canada, Quebec, and Vermont selling in Maryland, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and occasionally Georgia
  • Employees: in the past have had 15-18, this year only 12, “fewer people to manage means a tighter knit team”, H2A program
  • Biomass furnace heat system, wood pellet fired, (heats the water which is piped underground), back up furnaces fueled by propane if very cold
  • Business model: market garden for farm stand/CSA (wide variety of crops), 20 acres for wholesale (only 6 different kinds of crops)
  • Produce 70,000 pounds of carrots per year

Background:

Christa, one of the farm managers along with her husband, grew up on the land that they now farm, however, her parents were not farmers. When she was a kid, the land was leased to dairy farmer, however, when the farmer transitioned, it became difficult to get someone to use the land. Although Christa had worked in a small vegetable garden with her mother when she was a child, she never had farming in mind, however, she “always had an appreciation for really good food”. Her mom always canned through the winter and she had always had an interest in science and biology. After getting a degree in biology and environmental science as well as realizing how pervasive the industrial food system was at the time, she and her husband, Mark, began with a garden and chickens. What propelled them into farming as a career was the chickens because most of their friends and neighbors had their own gardens but not their own meat. It started with a self serve table at end of driveway, all the while, they still both had full time jobs as biologists. Eventually, they decided to make the leap to become full time farmers and applied for the Farm Viability Program to gain technical assistance on how to scale up the farm. Christa noted that “the demand and the market was there”. Another reason for their success in the beginning was that they began before the early 2000’s when the organic market exploded onto the scene.

Mark, Christa’s husband and co-manager grew up on small farm and homestead in Washington state. Therefore, he was used to the need to work hard. Along with the Farm Viability Program, they also benefitted from attending workshops and mentoring with other farms in the area.

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The chickens are kept in a spacious high tunnel during the winter months

Focal Point:

The focal point of Jericho Settlers Farm is “good food year round”. In Christa’s words, she “really wanted to produce food so that people could eat locally year round”. She also realizes that this means people will have to shift their current eating habits. However, being able to grow fresh greens in the winter and store crops in the winter allows greater diversity in the winter and early spring months. Another whole systems focus point is providing year round steady employment.

Within the vegetable production, Christa mentioned that they focus intensely on a few crops such as early tomatoes, cucumbers, root crops such as carrots beets parsnips turnips, and cut salad greens.

Although 75% of what they grow is sold through wholesale, yet another focus is on staying connected to the immediate community through the CSA and farm stand on the property. They also do so by selling to local stores and restaurants. Essentially, they see the fact that Jericho exists as an alternative form of community service because anyone who comes to the farm to get produce can learn more about how growing works.

Problems Addressed:

Variability/Unpredictability– One of the hardest parts about running a diversified vegetable farm is that there are many different crops being grown at once, each of which has different labor demands. A farmer ends up doing something different for 30 different crops or more. In order to continue to be as efficient as possible, they track costs by logging the amount of time that goes into growing each crop. For certain crops such as carrots, they keep track of what tractors they used on them and for how long, seed cost, how many beds they planted, how many times they weeded, how many hours went into that weeding, every time they cultivated with a tractor, yields, harvest time, and wash time. At the end of the day, they know exactly what they produced, how much they sold it for, and how much they put into it.

Management– For a significant amount of time, Christa and Mark hired a few managers to oversee certain aspects of the farm. However, this long term goal did not work for various reasons. For instance, they cannot offer the benefits of most full time work such as health insurance. It also caused issues because managing other people is difficult and having to manage a manager proved difficult, including managing managers. Instead of this model, they now have a team model in which all employees are on the same plane; there is no hierarchy. They all meet once a week as a team on Sunday’s to plan for the week ahead and in combination with this, Christa sends out an email detailing what will happen the next day. In order to keep track of what happens each day, team members will text Christa at the end of the day to update her on anything noteworthy. Christa reflected on this model saying,”other team members are learning their jobs better because they have to”.

Employment– Before switching over to hiring through the H2A program which brings seasonal workers up from Jamaica, Jericho used to hire almost exclusively locally. Unfortunately, they found that many employees could not commit to the full season and hours necessary. Now they have five employees that work year round while half of the seasonal comes through the H2A program and the other half of the seasonal crew are local. This relationship works well because the Jamaicans’ goal is to make as much money in that specific time frame as possible from March – November. The program also offers continuity because they can and often do come back to the same farm every year. Having a consistent, efficient labor force is even more important as they shift towards selling more wholesale as the margins have to be even lower.

Information gap–“What we run up against is consumers who are confused and unaware of what’s happening in the organic certified world” (in terms of lowered standards).

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Two of the Jamaican workers from the H2A program planting winter green transplants

Economics and Profitability:

The most profitable crops include roots, greens, and tomatoes, eggs, and pork each of which they run profitability budgets on. Still others such as baby bok choy they take “snapshots” of by keeping track of how long it takes to seed, wash, and harvest once or twice during the season.

In order to continue to be as efficient as possible, Christa and Mark have placed informational signs for the employees to follow. These signs include information such as how to take care of a crop, how to trellis and prune, or a reminder to bleach out the knives or record data. By making sure that the employees are as efficient as possible, this affects the pace at which things happen on the farm, increasing the potential for produce being sold.

Since Jericho sells to Deep Root, a wholesale producer selling in stores on the east coast such as Whole Foods, the prices are much lower, therefore, they need to be able to produce a product efficiently. The prices are sometimes half of what they would receive selling through retail or local wholesale. Christa advised that “it doesn’t matter so much how big you are, but how efficient you are”. Therefore, there are certain things that they do not sell because they are not efficient enough.

Sustainability:

At Jericho, they go above and beyond in terms of cover cropping. Instead of having a cover crop on one field for one season, they have a 4 year cover crop and pasture rotation in which the pigs, sheep, and chickens graze. This rotation cultivates good soil structure through leguminous cover crops that provide nitrogen, and increased deep root growth, organic matter, and carbon sequestration. It also serves to break the pest and disease cycles while still being productive.

In order to take advantage of renewable sources of energy, all of the electricity on the farm comes from solar panels. Furthermore, the greenhouses are mainly heated through a biomass system fueled by wood.

Although their produce is certified organic, the livestock are not due to the scale that they are at as well as the degradation of organic standards, especially in the world of dairy. These standards are lenient and not well enforced. The labor that goes into raising grass fed livestock is much different than in CAFO’s, however, the standards of certified organic meat do not take this into account making it so that smaller scale producers cannot compete.

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Solar Panels on the property

Community Building:

In terms of community and quality of life benefits, Jericho Settlers is involved in local farm to school programs, donates to the local food shelf, works with the Vermont Food Bank, gleans with the Intervale throughout the growing season, and hosts on farm dinners (one in the summer and fall). For these dinners, they partner with a restaurant who sells the tickets while they prepare the food and host the event on the farm. Some of the money from the ticket goes towards NOFA VT. The on farm CSA is also a way in which to interact with customers and build community.

Transition Advice:

The biggest piece of advice that Christa has is that young farmer “should know their market before they start”. She emphasized that in Vermont there is not a lot of room in the market locally, so new farmers need to either identify a market that is not local or to figure out what the local market still needs. She noted that it is also important to sell the product at the price that you need to thrive. This is even more important now with the market being saturated.

Yet another piece of advice was to “find the right thing that matches your strengths, interests, and satisfies a need in the market”. This is a delicate balance that must be considered before jumping into farming. Finally, Christa expressed that having an educational background in science as well as knowing how to get information and analyze it are helpful. Practical skills such as welding, carpentry, and mechanics are also beneficial.

The Future:

In the future, they are building four more unheated hoop houses in order to continue to increase winter production. Markets will continue to stay the same as they continue to sell more to the same people. They will also continue to focus on being the best possible suppliers possible so that people can depend on them. It is oftentimes difficult for farmers to provide dependable, high quality products, however, this is a key goal for Jericho now and in the future. Christa also noted that they think it is important to invest as much in the infrastructure that they already have and to produce as much as they can with what they have in a relatively short period of time.

 

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One of the employees washing greens

 

 

 

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Woods Market Garden

Summary of Operation:

  • Location: Brandon, Vermont
  • Employment: H2A program (1/3) and local people (2/3), in the height of the summer, have 10 people working the farm stand
  • CSA:
    • Group off-farm, 350-400 shares
    • Fall: 6 – 8 weeks, (September, October, November)
    • Summer: pre-buy membership for farm stand, 100 – 150 shares, free choice, perks during the season
  • 7 greenhouses, all heated, vegetables, flowers, bedding plants, hanging baskets, plant starts, 2 greenhouses dedicated to in-ground tomatoes
  • 15 acres of corn
  • 60 acres total, 25+ acres of organic produce (half of produce goes to farm stand, other half is wholesale to Middleburry Co-op, Black River Produce, and the collaborative CSA)
  • Soils: pure beach sand in some areas and Vergennes clay in others

Background:

Woods Market Garden is rich in history. It has been a farm stand since the 1920’s and has an extremely loyal customer base because of this. Jon bought the farm with help of the Land Trust in 2000. In the first 10 years, he focused heavily on the farm stand selling bedding plants and flower starts. After seven or eight years farming the property and building up the production capability, Jon decided to become organic certified. The risk here was that people who had been coming for years might not agree with the shift, however, he noticed that his younger customers appreciated the move. At this point, he also expanded his market to include wholesale in order to stabilize the natural ups and downs that occur with crop production. Today, 1/4 of the business is focused on growing organic vegetable and herb starts for their own use as well as for selling at the farm stand. The other 3/4 consists of selling at the farm stand and wholesale.

Jon originally became a farmer on accident. He received his undergraduate degree in design at UMASS Amherst. Then, after reading “The Unsettling of America”, by Wendell Berry, he began to feel pulled to farming. At the same time, he realized that he was “in the middle of some of best soil in the world”. He farmed in Hatfield, Massachusetts where there were a significant amount of growers, most of which were not using organic practices, but who shared knowledge and equipment with each other. Then in 1995, he started looking for a larger piece of land to farm. At the time he was working for NOFA-VT and met Bob and Sally, the previous owners of Woods. Although the land was larger than he had wanted, he purchased it with the help of the Vermont Land Trust in 1999 and started growing in 2000.

Focal Point:

When asked about the focal point of Woods Market, Jon reflected that he is always trying to find a balance between what he wants to do and what he is capable of doing. Now that he has a young family, this mandates a different perspective. For a long time when he first started doing wholesale, the focus was on continuous growth, however, this focus has shifted now more towards his family. In order to do this, he is focusing on direct marketing through the farm stand. So far, the stand has provided a steady source of income for Woods due to the fact that it is located directly on a major road with steady traffic in the summer months.

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Heated greenhouse with vegetable and flower starts

Problems Addressed:

Growing– Problems and issues that have had to be addressed in terms of growing include weather and low organic matter in the soil. Before Jon started farming the land, it had been in intensive market use for 100 years and therefore was extremely depleted.

Isolated location– Even though they are located on a major road, the flow of customers can change drastically depending on the price of gas. They are also fairly isolated from larger towns and cities such as Rutland and Middlebury (the closest town is Brandon with 4,000 residents). They are further isolated by the fact that there are mountains on both sides to the east and west

Markets–Being in the business of selling wholesale means that Woods competes with significantly larger distributors. In order to overcome this issue, Jon makes sure that he has a solid commitment from each of his buyers before growing what they will want.

Labor– Without the H2A program, there would be far less consistency in the labor force. Although they do hire many employees locally who are committed to the farm and usually stay on for a few years, the H2A program provides a cushion. In general, the seasonality of labor is also difficult. For instance, if people leave during the middle of the season, this can derail the entire operation.

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In-ground tomato plants in a greenhouse

 

Economics and Profitability:

In the beginning, Jon was able to buy a large piece of land with the help of the Vermont Land Trust. Originally, it was more than he could afford, but the Land Trust was able to “knock down the initial capital investment”. He also received a few non-traditional grants with no interest and without traditional collateral effects. Furthermore, he worked with the Farm Service Agency and borrowed over $15,000. The business grew a significant amount in the first five or six years. There was a slight dip in progress around 2007/2008 when the economy crash coincided with a microburst in the area, however, having insurance helped financially. All in all, Jon’s expectations of income continue to change and he finds that farming always requires a balance between the skills of being a good employer and a good business person. The move towards combining the farm stand, CSA, and wholesale also helps to mitigate the challenges and unpredictability of farming.

In terms of profitable crops, strawberries are currently up in sales while sweet corn is down compared to what it has been, however it is still quite popular. This is mainly due to a change in diet and the fact that the cost of growing has gone up. Tomatoes are yet another steady source of income.

Sustainability:

In Jon’s words, at Woods, he “does his best to treat the soil well and not destroy what’s there”. They attempt to do this by avoiding double and triple cropping the land and instead, growing a good, extensive cover crop every year. Now that they have reached a larger scale, they can spread out more and take large portions of the land out of cash crop production for a few years to cover crop. He also recognizes that tilling is degrading as well. In order to mitigate the impacts, he uses tractors with wide tires so that the weight is dispersed over a greater amount of land. For fertilizers, he uses a compost of poultry bedding. Following organic standards allows him to think about inputs vs. outputs on the farm and how to mitigate inputs that come from far away or are harmful to the environment. Also noteworthy in terms of sustainability, depending on the weather, he pays attention to moving between working the heavier versus lighter soils. As for sustainable energy sources, 100% of the solar collected is used at the farm. Excess credits are then net metered to other businesses and residences.

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Community Building:

In terms of community building, Jon expressed that having the farm stand open seven days a week draws many people together. The farm stand is especially busy in the height of the summer and because of this, he noted that they are “not as hungry to reach out to people”. They have also had open houses in the past and hope to do more of this in the future such as farm dinners that bring people together in a purposeful manner.

Transition Advice:

As for advice for new farmers, Jon’s thoughts are that it is important to work on a few farms for a couple of years before starting your own farm because of the amount of effort that goes into farming. In his own words, “once you start managing your own farm, you don’t have a lot of time to continue to learn from the people around you unless you are located in a highly functioning social network of farmers”. He noted that future farmers must also know what the industry needs and what scales are necessary to meet these needs. He emphasized this fact saying that farms can go under whether they are growing on 60 acres or 1 acre.

The Future:

Wood’s is looking to possibly add more greenhouse space for growing undercover, however, Jon is not fully invested in this idea yet because of the capital investment that it requires.

Jon also mentioned interest in the current debate between organic and hydroponic. Although he will always enjoy growing in the soil more, hydroponic systems do interest him and could be fun, however, he does not believe that it meets organic practices. He may look into markets in this line of agriculture but overall he would love to continue to support the Real Organic movement.

Cedar Circle Farm

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Summary of Operation:

  • Certified organic vegetables (annuals and perennials), berries, flowers, and bedding plants
  • Commercial kitchen: take crops and transform them into value added products (packaged salads, sauerkraut, pesto, soup, pickled vegetables, baked goods, etc.)
  • 2 farmers markets: Norwich and Lebanon
  • CSA model: no off site deliveries, switched over to gift card model, free choice, two lower tiers and two higher tiers, maximum is $1,000 “Produce Plus” card
  • Total acreage: 50 acres (home farm is 30 acres, rest is rented nearby), grow 2-3 acres of dry beans
  • 13 greenhouses (6 heated, 7 unheated), 2 heated house ornamentals, 1 for vegetable bedding plants, remaining are dedicated to growing in the ground
  • Customer base: radius is around 20 miles, attract commuters from the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, summer people due to close proximity to highway, mainly people from Hanover and Lyme
  • Employment: year round employment for production and farm stand managers, in annuals and perennials (10), seasonal (10), college and high school age work in fields, younger pickers work half days seasonally, retail crew open every day of the week (6), summer camp for six weeks in July and August (8), sometimes hire interns but do not have structured program for them, nearly all employees live locally

Background:

Co-Founder’s Will and Kate began farming in 2000. At the time, they were both living and working in Burlington, Kate at the UVM College of Agriculture’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture extension services. She began working in the field of agriculture in graduate school where she worked in agricultural policy and on training programs to get people to learn from farmers. As for Will, her husband, he had always been involved in farming having grown up on a farm, and later in advocacy efforts for organic farming. He received his PhD in anthropology focusing on tropical rainforest agriculture. Therefore, when they were presented with the opportunity to collaborate with a few investors, Will had the practical experience and Kate had the education and experience in social change.

Kate received her graduate degree in Community Development, Theories of Social Change with a focus on Agricultural Economics. During this time, she completed an internship with a small NGO focusing on saving family farm. She then began to think about the scale of agriculture and how this interacts with the viability of communities in rural areas in combination with the environmental impacts that different scales of communities have. In the end, being a part of founding Cedar Circle Farm posed as a way to pull many of her interests into one project.

Focal Point:

Cedar Circle Farm is focused on organic farming with a social mission to engage the community, promote regenerative agriculture, and create a resource rich environment. Through this model, they have a full time staff member devoted to education. Since the farm is based off of an ownership structure in which the farm is owned by a private foundation, they support the goals of the farm with the income of the farm similar to Merck Forest. This allows them to support a research and develpment program as well as an educational program. Kate expressed that they strive to “education the next generation for becoming responsible consumers. They want to “get their customer base to be in tune with why it is important to support local agriculture” and that it is not important to not only buy good food, but to make sure that that food is contributing to a healthier environment. Essentially, the farm is a vehicle for social change. They are involved in political movements such as the GMO labeling campaign and the Real Organic as well as Regenerative Agriculture movements.

More specifically, Cedar Circle focuses heavily on reducing their tillage and committing to cover crops on every field. With the no-till research, they hope to create a set of methods that is replicable and profitable for other farms at their scale. She noted that on small scale farms, this technology and research exists, but not on medium-scale farms.

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A heated high tunnel filled with in-ground tomatoes

Problems / Issues Addressed:

Transition to no-till– Since there are no highly successful models at thee scale of Cedar Circle that have been developed yet, they have decided to start on their own through research, working with UVM, and dedicating specific areas of land to no-till. They are still in the beginning stages with only a few acres converted to no-till, of which, all are still in the research stage. Kate elaborated on this stating, “I believe it will take maybe 10 years or more to convert the whole farm. We have to find the right formula for figuring out how to control the weeds and promote enough soil life and nutrients to achieve the same yields we achieved with our regular tillage methods”. In addressing this issue and cutting back of tillage, they will inherently “build soil health and sequester carbon instead of losing carbon through tillage or too much bare ground and erosion”.

Balance between cover crop and cash crop– Kate emphasized that there is a fine line between the cover crop and cash crop rotation. In order to succeed, there must be enough build up of nutrients and active soil biology from the cover crop in oder for the cash crop to succeed. This is why the research that they continue to carry out on the farm, with the help of UVM, is extremely important for their farm and other farmers in New England.

Economic viability vs. environmental sustainability– As a farm, one of the most difficult aspects is “balancing the idea of operating in an economically viable way while simultaneously keeping hold to all of their environmentally sustainable practices” For instance they are using more plastic in the strawberries to cut down on weeding and the cost of this labor, yet there is nothing sustainable about plastic. Part of the mission of the farm is “to be a model of sustainability but also be a model of a real working farm”.

Scale– A continuous issue for Cedar Circle is finding the right scale while continuing the mission of the farm at the same time. Kate stressed that if they decide to cut back on production, more people might come. However, it is impossible to predict this from year to year. Instead, they focus on where their strongest markets are and why those markets are strong. For instance, they used to go to four farmers markets but recently cut back to two because other aspects of the business were more profitable and better fulfilled the mission.

A changing CSA model– for 15 years Cedar Circle followed the traditional CSA model of making pre-packed boxes that customers would come to the farm to pick up. Then, they switched to a more interactive model in which customers would come to farm stand and pick out the produce for themselves. Then, three years ago, they decided to add the option of buying a gift card to use at the farm stand. This model was full free choice and offered a 10% discount upfront. At this point, they also began delivering to people’s workplaces. Eventually, the numbers of shareholders started to drop off and there was more labor going into packing and delivering the boxes. Therefore, this year, they made the radical change to cease all off site deliveries and switch to only offering the gift card model. Each week, they provide a list of vegetables that are in season. This also means that production and labor are much more efficient.

Market Saturation– Market saturation in the CSA originally pushed them to change the model. Kate noticed that they were unable to reach 200 members due to high competition in the area, therefore, they made the change to a free choice, gift card model.

Economics / Profitability:

When asked what crops bring in the highest profit, Kate replied saying that strawberries, tomatoes, blueberries, and pumpkins are at the top. Since they grow every kind of vegetable and also sell off farm products such as local meats, pasta, and peanut butter, the diversity of products is what keeps the business running.

Since the farmland was originally purchased by the foundation, Cedar Circle’s model is similar to Shelburne Farms. In this way, as long as the overall mission of the farm is upheld, the farm will continue to be supported financially by its investors.

Sustainability:

In terms of sustainability, Cedar Circle has focused on getting as close to a no-till system as possible for the past five years. They are also heavily involved in cover cropping, assessing the potential Nitrogen that plants receive from cover crops, sequestering carbon, and keeping track of how much carbon is in their soils.

Cedar Circle focuses on no-till as a lever for change because every time a farmer tills, they lose carbon, therefore, they have to constantly add it back into the soil. With the no-till research, they have one field that has been in a no-till system for 3 years. In the first year, they planted rye and roller crimped it when it was ready. Unfortunately there were weeds growing with the cover crop so they used solarization to kill the weeds but not the cover crop. This entailed covering the bed with black plastic for two days. Then, in the fall they planted brassicas such as kale and broccoli. In order to do so successfully, they needed the right equipment that would be able to go through the mat of rye. In this rotation, they had success but are continuing to monitor the biological activity and timing with the system. This year, they plan on using compost teas made on the farm as a fertilizer. They chose compost tea over fish or kelp fertilizer so that their inputs come from closer to the farm.

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Due to a few cold nights where the temperatures dipped to around freezing, they covered the young plants with two layers of row cover to keep them warm

Community Building:

Since Cedar Circle’s mission is socially driven, there are many ways in which they promote community building. One way is through the annual pumpkin festival. For this festival, they gather around 1,500 – 1,800 people each year to eat good food, go on wagon rides, play and listen to music, pick pumpkins, play games, and engage in educational experiences.

Yet another way in which they foster community is by providing a space where people can gather as a family, with friends, or to meet new people. Some customers come to the farm stand every weekend with their kids to hang out and have a picnic for several hours.

In terms of education on the farm, every Tuesday during the summer, they have programming for 3-5 year olds. This includes activities such as walks in fields, looking for bees, pulling carrots, and collecting eggs. The education program also hosts a winter cooking class for middle schoolers and the Junior Iron Chef competition through NOFA. Further education includes sessions for homeschooled children to learn about farming. In this way, they are able to educate a broad scope of young people in the area. Bringing children onto the farm also brings their parents which encourages them to support the farm in a symbiotic relationship.

Community building also involves gleaning in partnership with Willing Hands. This organization is volunteer based and works to redistribute the produce to food shelves and kitchens. Through this program, Cedar Circle also has a one acre volunteer run garden that serves as a “pipeline of fresh food to food shelves”. Last year, Kate noted that they donated 20,000 pounds of food.

Finally, Kate spoke of how they carry out their social mission through the way in which they work with their younger employees. They do so by making sure that all of their employees are in tune with social mission of Cedar Circle and how they each contribute to a larger movement. Instead of simply instructing them on what to do, they make sure to emphasize why cover cropping is important or why they are researching no-till methods.

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Herb starts in a heated greenhouse

Transition Advice:

When asked what advice she has for beginning farmers, Kate said that she “always advises people to start small and emphasize face to face relations with customers”. She expressed that it is also important to have a plan before starting and to know how to measure the success of that plan. Before putting systems in place, farmers must learn from other people because much of this information has already been figured out such as crop rotation systems, seeding, transplanting, and harvesting systems. Ideally, she mentioned that it is easier to learn from someone who is looking to retire. Presently, in Vermont, many of the ‘back to the land farmers’ will be retiring in the next 5 – 10 years. Many of these people want their farms to continue to be farmed, therefore, this presents as a promising opportunity for young farmers.

The Future:

In the future, Cedar Circle will continue to focus on developing regenerative practices. Each individual at the farm believes that this is the future of agriculture and that farmers must go beyond cutting out chemicals. Instead of having a negative impact on the environment, they strive to have a positive one. In Kate’s words, they “need more people doing it, and more people doing it better while keeping the system balanced, the community involved, and growing enough produce to keep up with demands”.

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Clear Brook Farm

Summary of Operation:

  • 45 acres in cultivatable land, 25-30 acres in fruits and vegetables, flowers
  • Certified organic except for flowers (use non-organic fertilizer)
  • 24th season of growing
  • In the height of the season, employ 25-28 local people, spring: 8-12, fall: 8-12, winter: 5 people
  • Markets: retail farm stand, farmers market in Londonderry, wholesale a little to co-ops or Black River Produce, excess produce goes to a senior share for low income people through NOFA (100 people in the CSA share–$5 per share per week
  • Customer base: local people, farm stand is only a little ways off the road so it attracts people that know about it, people in the stand are friendly and keep people coming back
  • “One stop shop” farm stand meaning that they buy in local cheeses and other products that they don’t grow on the farm
  • Employees are all hired locally, a few long term employees, “they’re the managers, I just pay the bills and spend most of my time on the computer”
  • CSA: fall/winter CSA occurs once a week, starts up when the farm stand closes, summer CSA acts as a gift card for the farm stand where customers can buy whatever they want throughout the summer, large CSA: $25 and three free quarts of pick your own strawberries, small CSA: $10-15 and two free quarts pick your own strawberries
  • Soils: gravelly, sandy, loamy soil. Because the farm is upland at 1,100 feet, they have cooler summers to grow lettuce and greens and this is also good for avoiding flooding. However, there is a tradeoff because they do not have river-bottom soils.
  • Irrigation: wells, small stream, try not to use irrigation because too many other things going on
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Heated tomato greenhouse with alyssum to be planted next to each plant to attract beneficials

Background:

Andrew, the farm manager, was always interested in working outside. In the past, he worked for the forest service, loved fishing, and worked for Walker Farm for 7/8 years. He stated that he truly enjoys the work, however, managing people can be tricky. He also noted that “if he were to do it again, he’s not sure if he would get as big as they are”. There is often pressure to size up and scale up and that may have contributed to why they are at the scale they are at now. However, the scale that they are at now allows people to return each year, thereby providing year round employment.

As a young farmer starting out 24 years ago, Andrew learned mostly from working for Jack in Dummerston, VT. Although he thought he was ready when he bought the land, when he started working for himself, he realized quickly how little he knew. Even though he lived on the farm and worked every day, he realized that it is difficult to know what you’re doing until you run your own business. He now believes that 30-60% of farming is the knowledge that you have while the rest is flexibility and luck.

Focal Point:

The focal point of Clear Brook Farm is the farm stand. It provides the farm with the largest source of income and brings people together. Andrew said that he loves the connection to the community that it creates and finds it less stressful than selling wholesale.

Customer satisfaction is the other big focus because of how retail oriented the business is. Along with customer satisfaction inherently comes high quality of produce. Andrew expressed this saying, “we don’t put anything out that’s not 100 percent perfect”.

 

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Greenhouse including vegetable seed starts and flowers (hanging as well as starts)

 

Problems Addressed:

One issue that came out of talking with Andrew is being adaptable and “learning to not get too caught up in any one particular thing” because the nature of farming is unpredictability. He also highlighted labor as a place of growth noting that one of the hardest things is being a good manager of people. It takes full effort and a person who is willing to continue to learn from each year what they can do better. In his own words, Andrew expressed, “growing is what it is, but managing people takes real focus and thought and commitment”.

This being said, there is also a balance that needs to occur so that employees come back every year because of the positive experience that they have, while still making sure that the manager keeps a healthy distance. When asked about communication within the crew, he said that this is also a place where they are hoping to improve. Since they have a relatively big crew and not everyone works on the same days, it is often difficult to have everyone come together at the same time to meet.

Economics and Profitability:

At Clear Brook Farm, the most profitable aspects of the business is the bedding plants and greenhouse tomatoes. Since they offer a mix of everything, what essentially makes them money is having strength in diversity and the fact that they provide a “one stop farm” experience.

When first starting out, the land that he started farming the land was conserved from Act 250 stating that if someone were to work the land, it would have to be prime agricultural land. The farm stand was old and had to be entirely rebuilt. This meant that he had to borrow some money but also had an inheritance which helped with the downpayment on the land and buying one tractor and a greenhouse. It was also a financial gamble because many people in the area doubted that they would get customers who cared about organic produce. most people said, “no one will buy that stuff”. It took Andrew about eight years to get established, and by the early 2000′ s the business began to grow. Currently, due to the increase in competition in the area and market saturation, they have reached a fairly level income. This creates an issue though because costs continue to go up each year.

Clear Brook is also economically profitable because of the symbiotic relationship that they have established with the chocolate bar and ice cream shop on the other side of the street. Both businesses benefit from the other being open.

Sustainability:

In terms of ecological sustainability, beyond being certified organic, Clear Brook plants alyssum which is good for beneficial insects such as wasps that eat aphid eggs. They also plant marigolds as plants that attract beneficial insects. Along with these practices, they also practice cover cropping. They have a variety of mixed cover crops, sometime 4/5 different varieties all at once. Andrew always makes sure to plant winter cover crops, however, there is usually 2-3 acres that do not get covered every winter.

 

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Various greens grown for staff in one of the eight heated high tunnels

Community Building:

The senior share program that occurs in partnership with NOFA is one form of community building that the farm is involved with. Throughout the state, farmers provide 100 CSA shares to elderly people in low-income housing. They also give a significant amount of food to the food shelf. Similarly, running the farm stand creates an open space for community building and connection, especially amongst people who continue to come back to the farm.

Advice:

As other farmers have noted, having a good market before beginning growing is one specific piece of advice that Andrew gave. He noted that it is important think about how and where you are going to sell before trying to sell it. Along with this, hard work and persistence are important as well. Still today, Andrew reflected on how much work it is to have a farm. Therefore, it is even more important to think about scale, what you want to be, and to envision your life and life goals. Otherwise, it is difficult not to let the farm dictate all of your decisions. It is important to be conscious of each decision you make and to play things out as much as you can before diving in.

Future:

Future plans include adding pick your own blueberries and, in general, bringing people to the farm for more. Social media will also play a heavier role in the future in terms of having a strong marketing side of the farm. One of the biggest transitions in the future is who will take over the farm when Andrew wants to move on. Since he does not live on the farm with his family, this will make for a smoother transition when he does want to move on.

 

Merck Forest and Farmland Center

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Summary of Operation:

  • Non-profit educational center located in Rupert, VT
  • 3,200 acre forest and farm managed for recreation, habitat, forest products, wildlife, and carbon sequestration
  • 3,000 tap sugaring operation
  • 60 acre farm: 20 acres active pasture, 30-50 acres of hay, 10-15 acres in permaculture, and 1-2 acres of annual horticulture
  • Offer back country cabins for rent, walking trails, courses, clinics, workshops, school programs, events, summer camps (some draw up to 1,000 people at a time)
  • Around 10,000 people come to the land every year creating a natural overlap between people and the farm and forest that they interact with
  • Apprentice program: 2 – 4 apprentices have a 10 month position working with the farm, forest, and in educational programs
    • Curriculum with key expectations demonstrating their learning
    • Paid minimum wage and are given housing
    • Provide seasonal support from February – Thanksgiving
    • After apprenticeship, most stay in agriculture, forestry, or education (ie. work for city parks leading children’s garden programming, graduate research in the Amazon Rainforest, working on farm in Virginia)
  • Radius: VT, NH, Saratoga Springs, Boston, New York City, and New Jersey, also tourist heavy in summer
  • On staff: Executive Director, Assistant Director, Farm Manager, Forest Manager, Education Director, two apprentices, Assistant Store Manager, and a Communications Coordinator

Background:

Rob Terry is the Executive Director at Merck Forest. He found his way to wilderness, experiential education through first working at a public school, then in educational reform and policy. Eventually, he felt that he was getting too far away from spending time outside, so he transitioned to a position with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) working in conservation and land management. There, he continued to hone his skills in wilderness education and eventually brought those skills to Merck.

Focal Point:

Since the 1950’s when the foundation first began, the purpose of the foundation has morphed to the needs of the area. As major land grant colleges and agricultural extension programs have become more and more expansive, Merck has shifted to fill the experience gap for people. In this way, people who, for instance, previously had grandparents who farmed but who now live in the city are able to come up from the city and learn how to farm or work in forestry using regenerative practices. Without a space like Merck, people do not have access to this kind of hands on experience. Merck practices regenerative farming and sustainable forestry in order to demonstrate to people that these production outcomes can actually work inside a system that improves all landscape outcomes both for people and the natural community.

In order to focus on education, Merck subsidizes the farm with other sources of revenue, and by doing so, they can afford to put an apprentice on a tractor and not have that tractor producing at 100% capacity. As Rob put it, “without school groups, apprentices, visitors, classes clinics, Merck would not have a farm; agricultural products are almost by-products for us”.

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Problems Addressed:

“Hooking people in a digital environment”– Rob noted that according to a recent EPA study, people in the U.S. are spending 90% of their time indoors. This is problematic because 100% of people in world depend on farms for survival, yet only a fraction of them are involved in it. For most people, their relationship with food starts at the point of purchase, even though there is a whole system that exists prior to that point. In this way, people are oftentimes “unknowingly funding systems that they don’t necessarily understand”, Rob said. He recognized that farming and forestry systems can fall anywhere on the scale of being incredibly damaging to the natural environment to using regenerative practices that actually improve the landscape, yet some people never realize this. In addressing this issue, Merck seeks to inspire people to form a meaningful relationship with the natural landscape, and in the process, learn to understand it as a consumer or even become an advocate for farming and forestry practices that leave the landscape whole.

Being a non-profit– The nature of being a non-profit requires that the organization be as creative as possible at bringing in enough revenue to continue to offer programs that are entirely open to the public free of charge. For instance, Merck wants to always be able to offer educational programing for all elementary aged children in the area for free. They must balance this financial goal with bringing in enough revenue in other ways such as through selling the produce from their annual horticulture farm, offering guided tours, or charging people a fee to stay in the overnight cabins on the property.

Systemic challenges– Rob expressed that the growing gap between people and the natural landscape as well as working against the continuous degradation and depreciation of that landscape compound together to create one of the greatest systemic challenges. Simply by existing, Merck works to address this issue by providing a space for people to learn and interact with the natural landscape. They also know that not everyone is able to visit the property, therefore, much of the information can be found online or in their newsletters. Continuing to make more of this information available in other mobile forms is a future goal of Merck’s.

Information gap– at the landscape level, Rob noted that Vermont is losing forests at 1500 acres per year. Most Vermonters do not understand this because it comes as a reversal of a trend of re-foresting that has been going on since the early 1800’s. Most of this reversal of the land comes in the form of development. In terms of the carrying capacity of the landscape, Rob believes that if some of it went back into sustainable, regeneratively maintained agriculture, that would be better than losing forests to development which has a non-productive impact.

Trees dying– Some challenges endemic to the region such as beech bark disease create difficulties because beech trees are a native species, yet they are ecologically wasted. Unfortunately, they are no longer healthy enough to produce beech nuts, which are a great wildlife crop and are thereby no longer an ecological contributor. Emerald ash bore is also an issue that will impact trees in the near future as it is prevalent in all bordering states. Invasive pressures are yet another reason why trees are not thriving in the area.

Cyclical issues– These issues include late season frosts and droughts. Due to the recent drought this past fall, syrup producers have seen significantly lower sugar contents in their sap. Because of this, instead of needing 40 gallons of water for every 1 gallon of syrup, they require 60 gallons of water to make 1 gallon of syrup.

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An example of the educational impact that Merck achieves

Economics / Profitability:

Because of the nature of non-profits, in terms of economics, the margins are tight, therefore, Rob expressed that they have to be creative. Some products and services are sold at a small fee such as guided hikes, but other things will always be free such as programming for elementary schools in the area. As Rob noted, they “want there to be no barriers between Vermont students and the woods”. In general, they seek to “keep the gate open”. Although it is private property, they are “in the business of reducing barriers, not building them”. In order to be economically viable, they also have volunteers, annual members, and donors. Of these components, the donors are the largest contributors. These are the people that recognize the value in what Merck is doing and care about it enough to support it financially. Essentially, this allows them to build a model that otherwise would not be profitable.

Sustainability:

At Merck, they think about sustainability throughout the system as a whole. The farm practices sustainability in that a large portion of it is in perennial permaculture. Furthermore, the sheep are mob grazed and the pigs are raised on silvopasture. Mob grazing means that there are three groups periodically grazing on the land. First the lambs graze, then the ewes, and finally the chickens. Each group takes and gives back to the land by cycling nutrients. Ironically, the land historically was denuded by sheep in the 1800’s, and since then has been rehabilitated through this system of mob grazing. Further on farm sustainability practices include using draft horses on the 1-2 acres of annual horticulture that they till which cuts back on fossil fuel use. Also noteworthy is that although the farm’s purpose is not to sell the produce, avoiding food waste is a priority. They do so by selling some of the produce at the visitors center, to local clients, and wholesale. They also give some of it to staff and other people locally.

In terms of forest management, Merck abides by a forest management plan in partnership with Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) standards. This plan allows them to cut wood for fuel used both on and off the property and use wood for projects such as re-decking the sap house. Most of the fuel wood comes out of timber stand improvement or crop tree release. They also schedule treatments that have forest health and wildlife habitat benefits. These treatments include thinning to open up spaces for species that are most advantageous to the landscape. Although the forest does generate revenue for Merck, it is not a leading player in revenue generation. Putting the ecological impact and potential for recreation is always a priority over economic interests. In line with this principle, Merck has never been involved in any form of large scale commercial cutting.

Sustainability involves a great deal of balance which Merck continuously strives to achieve. For instance, they must balance focusing on managing a working and natural landscape. Yet another focus is balancing between employees having extensive knowledge of how to care for the land while also having the skills to engage with the public.

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Clear, organized map of the property

Community Building:

The nature of many of the events and activities that are hosted by Merck help to create strong community by bringing people together on the property. The various categories of activities range from programming to workshops to weekend events to certification courses, field trips, etc. One example of an event is the maple pancake breakfasts that occur multiple times each year bringing in an average of 100 people. This includes breakfast and subsequent programming that varies depending on the time of year. In terms of workshops, they are currently running two. One is a forest ecology workshop including activities such as owl hikes for kids and adults, looking at life cycles of micro and macro invertebrates, tree identification, and a farm and forest ‘makers series’ for children and adults involving craft projects using materials sourced from property (birch bark baskets, felting, wreaths, fairy houses). Certification courses include Wilderness First Aid, Wilderness First Responder, logging, chainsaw, tractor safety, and Leave No Trace. Field trips for local schools are run to meet Next Generation Science Standards for local elementary schools. As stated before, these learning activities will always be free so that children in the area have guaranteed access.

Other activities include monthly evening full moon hikes, weekend drop in programming, and engagement through the perennial/permaculture aspects of the farm where they offer u-pick berries and apples. They also have passive interpretive aspects on the property such as trails with signs where visitors can read about different wildlife and forest management practices. Similarly, native tree species are marked and geocaching available. Finally, Merck works with professors from institutions who are doing research on the property. These professors come back to periodically monitor their sites. Some are individually managed and others involve students in the research.

Yet another way in which Merck pursues community building is by welcoming people of color into the outdoors. People of color are not well represented in the outdoor recreation community, therefore they see this as a place for improvement. Merck does so by reaching out to areas such as Albany where there is greater diversity and brings these students in to experience the landscape. Similarly, when recruiting for apprentices, they recruit inclusively by intentionally diversifying the apprentice pool.

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The children’s garden helps children gain hands on experience with gardening, farming, getting outside, and understanding where their food comes from

Transition Advice:

In reflecting, the best piece of advice that Rob was given is to be available. In the context of Merck Forest, this means that the education and other forms of engagement have to meet people where they are at. In other words, they cannot expect that people are going to spend as much time outdoors as possible right away. This relates back to an earlier point that if Merck hosts an event, they cannot expect people to come, instead, they must go and find their audience, engage them in a meaningful way, and keep the audience engaged. Having a strong brand also contributes to success in any system that involves the public. Being in Vermont, Rob noted that this also gives them a leg up because of the strong brand identity connected to Vermont

The Future:

One of the biggest changes that Rob envisions in the future is landscape level work. The area of land that Merck encompasses as well as 7,000-10,000 acres around the property has minor road intrusions. An unrestricted block of land such as this is a tremendously valuable and rare ecosystem found in the U.S. Usually conglomerative private holdings do not get this big. To preserve this land, he envisions that they will work with neighboring landholders to have conversations about what they can do to protect this space.

The other significant change that Rob foresees in the future is capturing some of the value in the beauty of their land and exporting more of that content so that more people can see and learn about what is happening on the property without having to physically visit the space. He recognizes that they need to move toward this system in order to fulfill the mission of striving to inspire people to get outside more.

A smaller change is that in order to expand programming, this is the first year Merck will offer weekend programming for visitors. This requires that there be more of a commitment from everyone on the staff.

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Hicks Orchard

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Summary of Operation:

  • Grow predominantly apples (50 acres apple trees, 1/3 of which for hard cider)
  • Small number of tart cherries and blueberries
  • Markets: sell on farm retail, direct store delivery to super markets (Hannaford, Healthy Living, etc.)
  • Employees: hire through H2A program, locals, and small internship program mostly through Adirondack Community College (learn business, marketing, and retail end)
  • Most popular variety: macintosh and honey crisp

Background:

Historically, Hicks is the oldest u-pick operation in New York dating back to around 113 years ago. The current farm manager, Joe, worked at the bakery of u-pick business for 14 years before coming to Woods. The u-pick was a 200 acre farm in Albany county. While he was there, he worked his way up and eventually became a co-manager. Now he lives on Hicks property as well as the owner describing the model as “a new take on family farm”. In this way, the model supports multiple different people from several different families. Joe has been the manager at Hicks for a little over a year now.

Focal Point:

When asked about the focal point of Hicks Orchard, he described it as reinventing a farm that has a very traditional model and being able to remain sustainable in the future. The fact that the farm still has quite a traditional model means that it must go through significant changes now and in the future. One of the biggest changes is switching from standard trees to tall spindle. They are also going to focus on changing how they market and brand hard cider.

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Newly planted and trellised apple trees

Problems/Issues:

Dependent on timing– Since the majority of the business is seasonally open, this means that they are heavily dependent on people showing up during a limited time of the year.

Labor–In the past year, Hicks has switched over to hiring through the H2A program to supplement employment of local people. This has created consistency where there was not any beforehand. They are live on the farm and are will work seasonally from May 1 – Thanksgiving. When asked how they would be doing without the program, Joe stated that they would not still be in business.

Sustainable marketplace– Due to the increase in the number of farm stands in the area surrounding Hicks over the past 20 years, they have had to adapt to deal with this issue. Today, there are many other agri-tourism venues similar to theirs. However, the advantage that they have is customer loyalty in that the majority of their customers have been coming to Hicks for generations.

Demand for variety–Joe also expressed that consumers continuously want new varieties and changes. Therefore, there is a significant amount of pressure to grow new varieties regularly. The difficulties here are that on a small operation, it takes about 4-5 years to establish a successful fruiting tree. Hicks strives to become more efficient like other growers who can begin to pick from newly planted trees in only 2-3 years.

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Cider making operation on the farm

Economics and Profitability:

In terms of the most economically profitable aspects of the business, Joe noted that “if someone else picks it, they can make the most money”. After this, the fresh apples sold in the retail stand are most profitable. He also mentioned that it is difficulty to grow an economically sustainable crop without risking the whole operation because each plant contributes to the overall economic success of the farm, and if one plant dies, this affects the entirety of the business.

Sustainability:

In order to move towards being more sustainable, one way is that when treating insect pressures, they monitors various traps on the property and do not react to what is in the traps unless they sees something. Another way in which they are sustainable is by staying educated. Joe is continuously engaged in meetings and conversations between growers and scientists through reading about research conducted by Cornell, Rutgers, UMASS, and Penn State. By staying up to speed, they can better understand what their options are and pick the best one from there.

Although the farm is not organic certified, Joe agrees with many of the practices associated with organic, however he noted that “there is a lot of marketing behind what organic is”. Instead, he is engaged in an operation called Eco Apple, an organization of apple growers that attempt to compromise between conventional and organic practices. At meetings, they discuss what they actually need as producers and what the most progressive practices are.

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An old apple tree that was recently cut down due to inefficient production levels

Community Building:

Community building is an area of growth that Hicks hopes to work on. Currently, being a member of the Eco Apple organization of growers is one way in which they are a part of building a community. In this group, they seek to provide a space for apple growers to discuss problems and issues and how to address them in what they see as the most sustainable ways. Furthermore, due to the fact that many of their customers come back every year for generations, this is yet another form of community engagement.

Transition Advice:

Joe’s one piece of advice to future farmers was that “people are always going to eat”. He expressed that it may be difficult, trying, and scary to become a farmer, but that people are always going to need food.

The Future:

In the future, they are working on replanting and modernizing the orchard. They will do this in part by planting all of the trees in rows of 12 feet across and with 3 feet between each tree. This will mean much higher levels of efficiency while still growing a healthy, resilient crop. Other changes are that they are transitioning from the traditional style of planting where they have the tree and its root stock to modern planting which involves trellising. One last change in the future is that they plan to provide increasingly diverse crops such as sweet corn.

Evening Song Farm

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Summary of Operation:

  • 4 acres crop land, 2.5 acres cash crop, and 1.5 acres cover crop
  • Sell diversified vegetables through a free choice year round pick up CSA, two local farmers markets (one year round), and to nearby restaurants
  • Grow almost all vegetables except sweet corn
  • 2 unheated high tunnels (greens in winter; eggplant, cucumbers, tomatoes, basil, green beans, and ginger in summer)
  • Customer base within 15 mile radius
  • Livestock for family use include pigs every other year, milking goats, and meat birds

Background:

Kara grew up attending a farm camp as a kid and was also naturally drawn to and felt rewarded by hands on work. At Earlham College, both Kara and Ryan worked on their campus student run farm where they were able to learn some of the basic framework of farming. Their interest in farming grew from there in combination with the fact that they are both strong environmentalists. After graduating, Kara expressed that she was “antsy to get going, start farming, and get her hands dirty”. With this passion for growing, they both decided to work on a farm in northern Vermont. Soon after, when Ryan bought Kara a goat for her birthday, they realized that they needed somewhere to house the goat, so they moved to a friends piece of land in Pennsylvania and started growing as well. For two years, they ran a farm on one acre with a small CSA. However, they felt that they could not fully invest in the land without a long term plan and because of the quickly encroaching fracking industry, so they moved to Vermont to farm. They found their first piece of land and prepped it while continuing to work in Pennsylvania, commuting back and forth. This included plowing, tilling, cover cropping and composting. Once it was ready, they moved to Vermont and started a new life.

Focal Point of Operation:

The focus of Evening Song Farm is hard to pinpoint due to the nature of diversification, however, they are currently focusing on making their planning as thoughtful as possible, both in terms of details and bigger picture ideas. In their business model, they aspire to look at all of the possibilities before them and from there make decisions based on researching and talking about each of the options. They also focus on being conscious of why they are putting planning energy into what they are at any given moment in time.

Another current focus is on improving the quality of life for the people that work on the farm as well as for themselves. Kara noted that currently, their model is unsustainable for her in that she needs more freedom and flexibility. In her own words, she feels “more ruled by the farm than ruler of the farm”. In terms of improving the quality of life for employees, they have decided to transition away from offering on-farm housing because they feel that the housing that they have is not sufficient during the cooler months.

Practically speaking, Ryan mentioned that the main focus that they have right now is how they can minimize tillage. Since they are growing on a hillside, tillage greatly contributes to erosion, thereby compromising long term soil health. Along with researching new ways to cut down on tilling, they also are focusing on increasing winter greens production in their high tunnels so that they can scale back on tilling and growing in the fields.

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Different varieties of seeded peppers

Problems Addressed:

Lack of knowledge in the beginning–One overarching issue when Kara and Ryan first started farming was that they overestimated their abilities. Going into it, they did not have extensive knowledge of their equipment, they had never grown on anything larger than 1 acre of land, and the plan that they had come up with before starting “wasn’t based in reality”, as Kara said. Because they had little knowledge concerning their equipment, the compost that they bought was spread unevenly. Furthermore, when they tried to plow with a plow that was too big for their tractor, they had to hire their neighbors to plow and disc the land. They also did not have any connections in the area, therefore marketing was a significant issue. For instance, when they planned their CSA, they thought they would have 120 CSA members in the first season, but only had 65 half way through the season. Because of this, they had to go to add another market so that they could still sell all of the produce that they were growing. Furthermore, the land that they started farming on had never been farmed before and they also had little knowledge about the soil.

Their lack of knowledge in the beginning combined with poor luck led to yet another problem. Due to their close proximity to a river, during their first season of growing, Hurricane Irene hit Vermont and washed away the entire farm. Although they had considered that they would likely experience flooding every once in a while, they did not predict that the whole farm would be washed away. However, they were able to bounce back and continue growing on a new piece of land in Shrewsbury, VT where they still grow today.

Marginal agricultural land–The land that they currently farm is not considered ideal agricultural land due to its steep slope. In dealing with this issue, they have implemented various field modifications and practices. Ideally, they would not be tilling the land because tilling increases erosion which is further exacerbated by the steep slopes, but for now they will continue to do so. since they are located just off of the highway, they had a huge benefit.

Layout decisions–Kara noted that when they built the infrastructure on the farm such as the high tunnels and processing area, they could have been planned it out with greater efficiency. For instance, they would benefit from having the buildings clumped closer together as well as moving the propagation house so that it receives more sun during the day.

Economics and Profitability:

When first starting off, Kara and Ryan wrote a business plan to figure out how much money they would need to borrow in order to invest in farm land. Since they could not access conventional loans, they instead wrote a business plan to access unconventional loans.

When asked what the most lucrative aspect of their business is, Ryan replied that tomatoes, shiitake’s, and baby lettuce are priced at the highest dollar amount, but in terms of quantity, baby greens have the highest demand. They also noted that there is a high demand for their year round CSA. Even though it is highly management intensive, performing weekly seedings of fast growing crops of many different types such as salad mix, baby arugula, salad turnips, radishes, and baby bok choi throughout the summer pays off and is something that not a lot of other farmers make time for. These crops “seem to fill a marketing whole” Kara expressed.

Sustainability:

In terms of environmental sustainability, the hillside is the biggest factor to take into account because the soil is highly susceptible to erosion. One practice that they have implemented to mitigate this is side pathways in between the beds creating strips of sod every four feet to break up bare ground. A second tactic on the hillside is using landscape fabric to suppress weeds and trap the sun in close to the plants. This fabric, unlike black plastic, can be used from one season to the next lasting from 10-15 years. Along with the landscape fabric, they also use mulches such as hay to protect the soil. Yet another tactic used is putting more of the land into long term cover cropping to help hold the soil in place. This helps maintain good soil structure and organic matter.

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A view of the vegetable washing station in the winter

Community Building:

In terms of community and quality of life benefits, Evening Song Farm hosts concerts on their property during the summer. They are also highly involved in the community by going to markets in both Rutland and Ludlow. Every time they go to market, they talk to customers, as well as talk and trade with other farmers.

Transition Advice:

Kara’s advice for future farmers is that, “if you think you are crazy enough to start a farm, then you should do it”. She emphasized that it is important for people to get into farming now, especially because of the aging population of farmers nationwide. She also noted that financial forecasting and creating a business plan is essential, otherwise, farming becomes significantly more stressful. For Kara, it is imperative to have this in order to farm long term. She also spoke of how important it is to believe that you can do it. This was the biggest asset she and Ryan had when they started out, and believes that it is an extremely powerful tool. Furthermore, networking and taking advantage of the farming community that you are surrounded by is definitely important. She explained that farmers must, “view the farming community as an asset versus as competition”. On a final note, she spoke of how in some ways, it was beneficial for them to not fully understand the difficulties, struggles, and riskiness that farming entails going into it.

Ryan’s advice for future farmers is to follow a specific process when approaching challenges. He believes that issues can be managed by “taking a real assessment of what the weak link is, looking at all the options, and dealing with it from there”. He also noted that people beginning farming need to think about how their circumstances can improve in the future. One of the things that worked for them in the beginning was that they started farming with the attitude of putting “a lot of hard work in a seemingly endless cycle”. Although they had the energy to do this in the beginning, it is important to use that energy to work towards a future that is more manageable so that it is not necessary to continue doing this year after year.

The Future:

In the future, Evening Song is planning on putting heat into their high tunnels. They recently purchased a pellet boiler that pumps hot water through the soil while also heating the air in the tunnel. This implementation will change both winter and summer growing so that they are able to plant earlier in summer, and in the winter they can expand the variety of winter greens offered while at the same time increase yields. Currently, two of the tunnels are unheated and one is heated under the table with an electric hot water heater in combination with a space heater to regulate the temperature for warm season crops that they start growing in colder temperatures.