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Growing the next generation of Vt. farmers

JAKE AND TAYLOR Mendell, owners of Footprint Farm in Starksboro, know a lot about the hardships and joys of farming in Vermont. Young people like the Mendells’ face many challenges when starting and maintaining a career in agriculture.

I would say if you really love farming but you don’t want to be a business person, grow on a homestead scale and go get a day job.
— Sam Smith

The landscape of farming is changing throughout the country, and Vermont agriculture is by no means an exception. To see this borne out, one only has to look to the dairy industry, which has shaped Vermont’s identity and working landscape over the past generations. The idyllic image of Holstein cows, red barns and big round bales of hay now lay in stark contrast to the hard realities dairy farmers have found themselves in as milk prices continue to remain depressed year-after-year.
However, these price pressures are not just limited to the dairy industry, they’re affecting the whole sector. And many of the farmers who are navigating these shifting landscapes are getting older, nearing retirement age and are in need of a new generation to succeed them.
As it stands, 15% of the 6,808 farms in Vermont have a “young operator” — age 35 or below — working on the farm. These farms steward 256,363 of the 1,193,437 farmland acres in the state and are responsible for 30% of the $781 million total market value that agriculture creates in Vermont. While the contributions of young farmers are not insignificant, there still remains 937,074 acres of land that don’t have a young operator involved in the farming of that land, with over 15% of those farmers being 75 years old or older.
Is farming even still a viable career for a young person?
With only one quick look at Instagram or a brief scan of the pretty posters of farmers in the field lining the supermarket shelves, it may be easy for young people to be swept up in the romance of farming — lush greens, hands in the dirt, determined but joyous smiles, the whole nine yards. But, the stark reality is that it’s hard work, things break, the weather doesn’t cooperate, especially with the effects of climate change becoming more noticeable with the onset of extreme weather events, and margins are almost unbearably thin. Add in the burden of student loans, skyrocketing healthcare costs, childcare considerations, and much more that millennial and Gen Z generations are facing in a pronounced way, and the answer, on paper at least, is teetering toward “no.”
But for many young folks and organizations in Vermont, that simply isn’t the case. Whether it’s for the love of the land and working outdoors, an affinity for animals and plants, or a belief in creating a food system that works for everyone, they’re dedicating their careers and lives to making farming work in Vermont among the ever-changing landscape of our food system.
Taylor Mendell, 32, and her husband Jacob, 31, own Footprint Farm in Starksboro. They are two of those young operators who are making a go of it in the shifting Vermont agriculture landscape. The farm, which sits on 2.5 acres of usable cropland of which 1.75 acres are in production, was started in 2013 with another partner. Now as the sole owners, Taylor and Jake, who met in California and moved back east to take over land that was originally owned by Jake’s parents, have built the operation up and, for all intents and purposes, are considered a success story in the world of farming.
However, Taylor is the first to admit that farming is hard work and being successful doesn’t actually always feel like success.
“I think the part that is hard for me to reconcile with is, yes, we are, according to a lot of people, a success story,” she said. “However, it still feels too hard. It feels too stressful and too volatile. I feel like I should get another job just in case.”
Taylor is not afraid to share these concerns with the farm’s ever-growing social media audiences, through her new venture, Habit Farming, or with the farmers and advocates that are part of the Vermont chapter of the Young Farmers Coalition of which she is president. It’s her way of working to build a community around the trials and errors that come with owning and operating a small, diversified farm in this changing landscape. She is building a support system and letting folks know that they are not alone even when it feels like this business and lifestyle can be next to impossible.
One of the things that makes Taylor and Jake a success, even in the face of adversity, is that they have settled into a business model that works for them and their operation. As of now, their market stream is split into thirds focusing on CSAs, farmers markets, and wholesale production. While it may have taken a few years to iron out the details, part of their comfort moving forward stems from the positive feedback they receive from technical assistance providers that they’re able to access for free through various programs in Vermont.
“Having an expert tell me that I was doing well has really changed my perspective on things, rather than me being like ‘I don’t know, it doesn’t feel good so we’re probably not doing well,’” Taylor said.
CALL IN THE EXPERTS
Taylor and Jake are not alone in tapping into this type of technical assistance in Vermont. Folks like Sam Smith, a farm business specialist with the Intervale Center in Burlington who has worked with Footprint Farm and many others, provide farmers with help in business planning, transfer planning, enterprise development, and cash flow analysis. Part of the job also involves not pulling any punches.
“I would say if you really love farming but you don’t want to be a business person, grow on a homestead scale and go get a day job,” Smith said. “We jokingly refer to ourselves as the dream crushers, but it’s really not a joke,” he adds later with a chuckle.
Smith, who is part of a team of three other business specialists at the Intervale Center, has been in the position for six years and holds a Masters in Business Administration. Coming to the position circuitously, he has also worked as a farmer and a social worker prior to joining the Intervale. To Smith, his job, whether it’s for new and beginning farmers or old hands of the trade, is to identify viable entrepreneurship in the agriculture sector and help that to flourish. And when it comes to doing that, while he appreciates folk’s principles for getting into growing food in the first place, he takes a very practical approach to it all.
“It’s like, that’s your market and if you’re going to grow you have to grow for that,” Smith said. “Then educate (people) and hopefully pick up customers that you wouldn’t normally get.”
For young people who want to get into farming, especially those coming with backgrounds not steeped in agriculture, the skill set needed for the career can sometimes be difficult to grow. While working on a farm is certainly the most direct way to start building a resume in that regard, pay can be low, the work is mostly seasonal, and with the general hustle and bustle of the farm it’s difficult for farmer-owners to find time to explain the decisions they’re making to their staff.
“You can go work on a farm and you’re going to learn how to harvest and weed and you’re going to do things like get up on a tractor or you’ll go do deliveries, but you’re not going to understand why everything is done or how everything is done behind the scenes,” said S’ra DeSantis, co-director and instructor for the University of Vermont Farmer Training Program.
It’s initiatives such as the UVM Farmer Training Program that are able to fill in some of that gap. As a six-month, intensive hands-on program for aspiring farmers and food system advocates, the UVM Farmer Training Program is working to teach people the steps to take agriculture operations from seed to market.
The 20 to 25 person yearly cohorts, which include people as young as 19-years-old, spend about 70% of their time in the field getting their hands dirty, and the other 30% in the classroom learning about soil fertility, pest and disease management, farm financials, and business planning, with a little bit of food justice sprinkled in. The program aims to give participants a comprehensive understanding of what it takes to run a successful agriculture operation while building a network for aspiring farmers to lean on. And, while the program definitely doesn’t cover everything, DeSantis hopes that, at the very least, people walk away knowing what questions to ask as they continue on their career path.
“I think it’s going to be challenging,” DeSantis said. “But I think there’s also opportunity.”

 

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