UVM program trains next generation of farmers

ADDISON COUNTY — It’s no secret that Vermont’s farmers are aging, but a program run by the University of Vermont Extension aims to inject new blood into the state’s backbone industry.
Next week, 15 students from across the state will graduate in the inaugural class of the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s Youth Agricultural Individual Development Account program, known as Youth Ag IDA. That group includes two Addison County residents — Ethan Gevry of Addison and Siri Swanson of Orwell.
The program is for young Vermonters, ages 14 to 21, who are interested in pursuing a career in agriculture. In the one-year program, students learn financial literacy and business management skills.
“Starting early with financial literacy, a strong background in business management, access to our state’s network of farm service providers will ensure our next generations of farmers will start in Vermont, stay in Vermont and thrive in Vermont,” said Ali Zipparo, the program coordinator.
Each student farmer saves money along the way. The program matches the students’ savings at a rate of 2:1, up to $1,000, for the purchase of a farm asset.
Gevry, 18, graduated from Vergennes Union High School this past June. He’s no stranger to farming — his family ran a dairy until selling its milking herd in 2002. The Gevrys still own the land, and rent it out. Gevry currently owns beef cows, and he grows hay with his father.
The younger Gevry first saw a posting about the Youth Ag IDA program online, and said his advisers with Future Farmers of America encouraged him to enroll. Gevry said he and the other students learned how to run a farm like any other business.
“We learned to make a business plan with the help of webinars that we watched, as well as financial planning and how to budget your money,” Gevry said.
He said programs like the Youth Ag IDA are essential, especially because Vermonters love locally grown, healthy foods. They are also important because many of Vermont’s farmers are near retirement.
“I got my auctioneer’s license and I’ll be going to a lot of farm auctions in the next few years,” Gevry said. “I know five or six farmers who are over 65 and are looking to get out.”
It’s no secret that Vermont’s farmers are getting older. Research by the state Agency of Agriculture in 2012 found that the average age of farmers was 57.3 years, up from 56.5 just five years earlier. There is good news, however — that same research found that the number of farmers under age 35 increased by 31 percent during that same period.
Gevry is one of those young farmers. Barely out of high school, the ambitious Gevry plans to expand his farming operation soon. He eventually hopes to raise 600 pigs and 100 cows per year.
“I want to maintain 600 acres, and at some point I hope to buy my grandfather’s farm and keep it in the family,” Gevry said.
Gevry said he strongly recommended the program to other young Vermonters.
“I would recommend it if you’re interested in agriculture and farming, and starting something on your own,” Gevry said.
Swanson, 15, is a student at Fair Haven Union High School. She is one of the few members of the program whose family isn’t heavily involved in agriculture. Rather, she is pursuing farming because of her own interest in it.
“My family doesn’t have much to do with it,” said Swanson, who presently owns 12 lambs and goats.
Swanson said her favorite part of the program was when she was awarded a scholarship to attend a meat producers conference in New England.
“There were a lot of big-time producers there, as well as workshops,” Swanson said.
Swanson, who conceded that she didn’t entirely know what she was getting into, said she was impressed by how much she learned from the program.
“I think the biggest thing I took away was the business aspect of it — all the little bits and pieces,” Swanson said.
As for her savings, Swanson said she originally wanted to use her matching funds to purchase more fencing for her animals. But as she shifted her focus to expanding her operation, she instead used the funds to purchase a breeding ewe. She said the Youth Ag IDA program taught her to keep meticulous records of her expenses.
“Right now I’m working on managing my finances, looking at how much I’m spending on grain each month and spending on each head,” Swanson said.
Swanson said she believes programs like this are important because they not only educate young people, but also empower students to share what they learned with older farming generations.
“They said knowledge is power, so a kid can take all the knowledge from this and just make strides,” Swanson said. “Anyone can put animals in their backyard and call it a farm, but once you can market yourself and make money, you’re golden.”
Like Gevry, Swanson recommended the program to other prospective students.
“Kids should know they have to be willing to put the work in, but it definitely pays off,” Swanson said. “It’s an amazing experience.”
Zipparo, the program coordinator, said young people face obstacles when starting out in farming.
For one, access to capital is tough for low-margin, weather-dependent businesses like farming. Also, the price of land is often out of reach for many farmers, Zipparo said. And while farmers may be experts in making the corn grow, they may lack the business management expertise to run a complex enterprise.
“Business management sometimes falls through the cracks,” Zipparo said. “Financial literacy is important for everyone, especially for those shaping our future.”
She said it’s crucial to get novice farmers started out on solid financial footing in an industry that’s vulnerable to weather patterns and ever-changing feed and commodity prices.
“All of these are reasons why it is so important to get this next generation off on the right foot, ready to jet-set into our state’s agricultural future,” Zipparo said. “We see a lot of older beginning farmers who have developed bad habits along the way, so it is crucial that we get young farmers tapped in early.”
Vermont Farm Bureau President Clark Hinsdale praised the work of the Youth Ag IDA and other similar programs that help young people get into farming.
“There is opportunity, so it’s important that we get young people onto these farms,” Hinsdale said.
Hinsdale said co-operatives and farm financing organizations like Yankee Credit have made it easier for newcomers to get into the farm business than a generation ago.
“It used to be considered that if you weren’t born on a farm, you were never going to get one,” Hinsdale said. “Because of the strength of the conservation movement in Vermont, there’s a lot more opportunity to buy assets at much more reasonable prices.”
Hinsdale said he’s encouraged by the growing number of young people that are interested in farming, a trend he believes is fairly recent.
“There’s a lot more interest in teens and people in their 20s than when I was growing up,” Hinsdale said.
He said examples of this broadening interest are the resurgence of farmers’ markets, the creation of organizations like the Intervale Center in Burlington, and increasing enrollment in agricultural programs at UVM and Vermont Technical College.
Education programs like Youth Ag IDA are essential for a number of reasons, Hinsdale said. For one, the technological advances of farming over the last few decades have made at least post-secondary schooling necessary for farmers.
“The level of sophistication and education required to manage a dairy is head and shoulders above what it was a while ago,” Hinsdale said. “A lot of times, growing up on a farm, even if you have a good role model, isn’t enough.”
Hinsdale said these programs also teach novice farmers how to succeed in such a low-margin business.
“It’s important these days that people don’t take the ‘Field of Dreams’ approach — that if you just grow it, people will buy it,” Hinsdale said. “Markets have become increasingly specialized. If you grow what restaurants, stores and retail customers want, they’ll pay for it, but you have to grow what they want.”
Hinsdale added that it is more difficult to get a farm loan in this post-recession economy than in years past, meaning that farmers have to develop a robust business plan in order to get a lender to sign on.
“You don’t get a loan without dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s,” he said.
For older farmers like Hinsdale, who owns the Charlotte Berry Farm and Nor-Dic Dairy Farm in Charlotte, it’s a relief to know that a younger generation of farmers will take their place, and that the future of Vermont’s staple industry looks bright.
“Basically, we don’t want agriculture to be our generation’s relic,” Hinsdale said.

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