Farm Incubation: A growing form of land access across the country

One of the most pressing issues facing young farmers today is not only land access but all the other investments that go along with getting a farm “off the ground.”  Farmers need tractors and implements, space for propagating their plants or housing their animals, a cooler for storing vegetables or meat. Farmers also need access to reliable markets, a community of people to learn from and learn with, business planning support, technical assistance and many yearn for a way to build equity. The Intervale Center’s Farms Program Local market for local goods saturated?has been incubating farm businesses at the Intervale for about 20 years, which includes not only access to land but also the other resources and assistance needed to get going.

The process to becoming a new farmer at the Intervale is involved. Beginning farmers with at least three years of production experience can apply with a short application. If the application is accepted, farmers are asked to submit a full business plan for their farm to Intervale Center staff for review and edits. The Intervale Center supports the applicant in this process, and it can take a few months to finish. The plan is then shared with current Intervale farmers for review. The applicant attends a farmer meeting and presents their business plan to the community. The current farmers offer suggestions for the business plan, ask questions about how and why the farmer is choosing to produce what they describe, and finally, make a recommendation to Intervale Center staff as to whether the candidate should be accepted or not. The final decision on acceptance rests with our Executive Director.

Ben Butterfield of Besteyfield Farm, a 2nd year incubator at the Intervale raising laying hens. Find his products at City Market and Healthy Living in Burlington, VT.

Ben Butterfield of Besteyfield Farm, a 2nd year incubator at the Intervale raising laying hens. Find his products at City Market and Healthy Living in Burlington, VT.

We view this process as a highly valuable experience for a beginning farmer.  Taking an idea, developing a business plan and receiving feedback from a community of seasoned farmers is a unique opportunity for many.  If a farmer is accepted, they are able to lease land at the Intervale for up to 5 years. For those five years, farmers pay to have access to land, cooler space, dry storage space, space to build a high tunnel or greenhouse, a wash station, tractors and implements and greenhouse bench space. What farmers at the Intervale don’t pay for directly is the community– access to mentorship, business planning and technical assistance and markets.

Many of our graduates mention the community, proximity to markets and customers in Burlington and great soil as the best things about farming at the Intervale. Obviously every parcel of land comes with its challenges .  The farmers at the Intervale face flooding, vandalism and the complexities that come with having an organization as your land lord. Our hope is that the benefits outweigh the challenges.

In addition to offering both tangible and intangible support for beginning farmers, farm incubation can reduce some of the risks of starting a new farm business. After farming for a couple of seasons, many people decide that business ownership is really not what they are passionate about.  By making this discovery in a farm incubator setting, they avoided spending savings or taking on large amounts of debt for a mortgage, equipment to start-up, building a greenhouse, etc. We see farm incubation as a safer space for beginning farmers to develop and launch their business and assess if farm ownership is the right career for them.

At the end of 5 years, farmers must transition to, what we hope, is a more permanent parcel of land. This may be another long-term lease arrangement or a farm purchase. By establishing themselves and their farm name at the Intervale, farmers have built credibility and have a greater likelihood of accessing long-term tenure, with landowners, a land trust, or through a bank, than a farmer who has never managed their own business before.

Some different versions of incubation are emerging elsewhere in Vermont. Tyler and Melanie Webb at Stony Pond Farm are helping to incubate businesses by allowing their staff to launch their own side businesses using land that the farm owns. Sobremesa Farm will begin growing vegetables and making value added products while also milking and doing other farm jobs for Stony Pond. Tyler has also incubated a pork business and a small rabbit and goat business. In collaboration, the Intervale Center has supported some of these beginning farmers with business planning assistance and coaching, and the farmers also receive insight on farm ownership from the Stony Pond owners themselves.

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The site of the new Hudson Valley Farm Business Incubator in New Paltz, NY, a new livestock incubator.

Nationally, the growth in incubator programs has been incredible. The Intervale Center is part of the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative (NIFTI) which helps to support and educate new incubator programs all across the United States. Currently there are over 111 incubator projects across North America managing over 1100 acres of land. The majority of incubator projects are less than 5 years old, a fairly new land access model in this country.

If you are a new farmer interested in incubation as a way to access land and start your farm business, check out the list of incubator programs on NIFTI’s website and check out the Intervale Center’s Farms Program.

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