By Suzy Hodgson
January is the time for crop planning at Full Belly Farm in Monkton, Vermont, when the land is covered with a blanket of snow. The new year 2020 is also a time to reflect as it’s the third year of Sarah and Stephen Park owning their own farm and almost a decade since Sarah became interested in farming and food.
Sarah’s interest in farming started while studying sociology in college and doing volunteer work related to food security. She became curious about food systems, particularly the way food is produced. As Sarah describes her first farm experience, working at Lewis Creek Farm in Vermont, “I was suddenly aware of this hidden world that most people don’t see or even want to see. I loved the physicality and pace of the work, being outdoors and working around plants. I also really valued the relationship and transparency that human-scale farming offered to consumers, and to a large degree that is still what drives me.”
To gain experience, Sarah and Steven worked on diversified vegetable farms in Vermont and Oregon and then ran a seasonal food cart business in Vermont for two years. As Sarah describes running the food cart business, “it was a great introduction to self-employment and took a ton of organization and energy to plan menus and be on the road cooking almost every weekend.”
Learning on the job and on the farm is what has worked best for Sarah and Steven. “Managing crops from seed to sale is where I’ve learned the most. I’m also grateful to have taken some excellent ag classes in college. Farming requires such a diverse skill set, ranging from the purely physical acts of farming to the more nuanced knowledge of your soils, crops, pests and disease, etc. Then there are responsibilities that have seemingly nothing to do with farming but are necessary for running a business. Each season we learn more about this farm and how best to manage it.”
In the fall of 2016, Sarah spotted a Request for Proposals on NOFA’s website with an open house scheduled. The former Norris Berry Farm property located in Monkton Vermont, had recently been conserved and was up for sale via the Vermont Land Trust’s Farmland Access program. Sarah described the decision to go, “just for fun” as she felt the farm was “out of reach.” “At first, I thought the farm would not be within our reach. Land access is a big obstacle for most people, and we didn’t think we had the necessary capital.”
But after leaving the farm open house, she and Stephen decided it was worth a shot. Together, they developed a farm plan and business proposal which they brought to their local Farm Service Agency (FSA). With positive feedback and support from FSA, Sarah felt confident about moving forward with their plan. For their farm purchase, the Parks received a Down Payment Assistance Loan from FSA. FSA also provided equipment and operating loans.
Part of the contract which the Parks secured through the Vermont Land Trust included working with Vermont’s Farm & Forest Viability Program. Through this program, Sarah and Steven met regularly with Sam Smith, Intervale Farm Business Specialist, who helped them prepare for the farm purchase and provided resources and training including Quickbooks, cover crop planning, and marketing.
This technical assistance has proved indispensable during winter planning as the Parks make future sales and expense projections and update their farm’s cashflows. Sarah explains, “Once a month throughout the season we come back to the cash flow to track our progress and make sure we are meeting our goals and aren’t spending more than we budgeted for. It’s hard to make time for these mid-season check-ins but it helps us make informed decisions and catch problems early. That said, there are always unexpected expenses, so we are still on a tight budget.”
Maintaining careful records is key to keeping Full Belly Farm on track. Last year, the Parks grew six acres of strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries and cultivated a variety of mixed vegetables including tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, sweet corn, carrots, lettuce, winter squash and melons on another 6 acres of farmland. “We keep records for our most important crops that include seeding, planting, and harvesting dates, yield, and other production notes that might be helpful in the future. We also track all labor by crop throughout the season,” says Sarah.
The Parks use Quickbooks for income and expenses, and keep detailed records from the farmstand sales with a Point of Sale (POS) system.
Considering future risks, the Parks are thinking about crop insurance to protect their high-value crops. “If there’s one crop we’d insure, it would be our strawberries because they are our most important crop. But the insurance coverage is based on yields of 3000 pounds per acre when we typically get yields of 10,000 pounds per acre or higher. If we were down as low at 3000 pounds in any given year, we’d be at a big loss. Now that we have three seasons of records to prove our average strawberry yields, we should be able to increase the rate of coverage using our own data.”
During winter planning, the Parks have “lots of projects on the docket”. They are planning to expand their farmstand, to improve the packing area, and to add more perennial fruit crops. The aim is to have their farmstand open for a longer season by offering produce in the spring and fall.
While the Parks has specific farm project and targets for 2020, their overall goals extend beyond the farm itself. “Our goal is to take good care of the farm and ourselves. These things are tied up together, how we feel and the quality of work we can do. Though it’s still early in our farming career I think we’re making progress on both fronts.”