Growing a Business while Growing Up

With her prize-winning registered Border Leicester sheep flock, Lydia Smith is a beginning farmer to watch. Lydia’s business, Echo Ridge Flock, sells breeding stock, feeder lambs, raw fleeces, wool blankets, pelts and meat, and provides shearing services for other small farms. Lydia started her business six years ago at age 14.

Lydia’s farm business was a natural off-shoot to her family’s farm, Vinegar Ridge Farm, in Charlotte, Vermont.  Lydia was two-years old in 2000 when her parents purchased two Romney ewe lambs, soon followed by some Border Leicesters and the flock grew exponentially.

“At first, it was a fun little hobby that I didn’t take too seriously.  When my older sister went to college and found herself too busy for sheep, another sister and I took over the management of the flock.  Then, something clicked,” she says.”

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Lydia Smith showing her sheep

“Two years later, at 14-years-old, I purchased my first sheep and Echo Ridge Flock began. Now, we have twenty-five brood ewes on about ten acres.  I make the majority of the genetic and nutritional decisions,”  Lydia says.

Most of Lyda’s sheep are registered Border Leicesters, a handful are registered Lincolns and a few are crossbreds.

While logistics limited Lydia’s enrollment in 4-H to just one year, she feels part of the 4-H community and says, “Without 4-H, I would not have seen those kids mature into the strong individuals they are today.  Each of us has had our struggles through the years and the sheep community has become the safe space for a lot of hurting kids.”

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Lydia has formed many deep relationships, gained confidence, and learned lessons beyond raising sheep through the sheep showing community.  Lydia described Joe Seavey, “a grumpy old shepherd from New York.  He told me that shearing was the only way to truly know my flock.  He was right; through shearing, Joe demanded excellence, yet was not competitive in the typical sense, saying, ‘The only person you should compete with is yourself.’ Essentially, I only had to be better than I was yesterday.  I work a little harder and stand a little taller today because of that man.”

While Lydia’s knowledge of sheep is ahead of her years, it was at Vermont Tech where she took business and agricultural classes that could be directly applied to her current business.  Growing up on a small farm, Lydia could build her flock without purchasing any infrastructure or equipment initially, building her little business piece by piece. While she knows other new farmers are in a different situation, she observes that “retired farms and farmers are often available and willing to help startups for a low rate.  I use pastures on two other properties to extend my grazing.  Without my sheep, those properties would be mowed or left to overgrow.”

UVM New Farmer Project’s Suzy Hodgson talked with Lydia about her growing a business while growing up.

SH: What has surprised you about sheep farming?

LS: You are never done learning.  Every lambing season, my ewes teach me something new.  Every season, the weather is different and my management must adjust accordingly.  I am always working to improve and therefore I am always discovering and trying new things. I make new mistakes every year, but also get closer to producing the animals I want.  Sheep have a knack for getting themselves into trouble.  I never thought I would perform CPR or treat concussions.  Many a diapered lamb has slept in my bed.

SH: If you could rewind the clock, is there anything you would have done differently?

LS: I would go back and sit a little longer with the old guys.  They have so much to teach us, something I did not fully appreciate until I was fifteen or sixteen. While they taught me so much, I could have learned more.  Above all, there are individuals that I never got to thank. Farmers in general and shepherds specifically are a dying breed.  The industry has lost many key figures in recent years.  I hope that I can share a bit of what I learned from them with the next generation.

SH: Any tips or pointers you’d like to share about sheep raising?  

LS:  1. If you do not truly love what you do, get out now. There is no room for the undecided.If you simply like sheep and think they are cute, get a few fiber animals and leave it at that.  Raising any livestock is heartbreaking at times. The good days will outweigh the bad, but it often does not feel that way.  I have had days where I considered selling the whole lot, days that just seemed too hard.  Then a healthy lamb is born and a sick one turns around and I get up and do it another day.”

2. Go sit with the old, cranky guy in the corner. Ask about his animals and then just listen. You will learn more from him than any textbook. Perhaps during lambing you’ll remember a trick from one of his rambling stories and save your first lamb.  Maybe you’ll identify an illness that much sooner because he had ten cases one year.

3. Do your research before selecting a breed. I don’t mean in a book. Talk to actual breeders raising the specific breeds you are interested in under similar conditions. The most common problem I see is new shepherds’ impulse buying sheep based on appearance or biased advice.  Every breed association and many breeders only highlight the traits they think people want to hear.  Bloodlines behave differently in different regions and management systems.  Find a breeder whose sheep you like and who you trust.  At the end of the day, you have to like the sheep in your barn.

SH: How your farm changed since you started, and why did you made these changes?

LS: While the products have remained the same, the priorities have shifted at times.  When the flock began, it was purely for fiber.  When my oldest sisters decided to show the sheep, an emphasis was placed on appearance and the production was poor.  In recent years, the goals have shifted to producing the best purebred possible that can excel with minimal input.  Few local breeders care about the showring; they want animals that thrive in the harshest conditions.  For me, that market is the most valuable.  I also have focused in on the type and color of fleece I want to produce, which has given me access to a bigger fleece market.

SH: What’s next? Where do you hope to take your farm skills over the next few years?

LS: Through showing sheep, I have made many connections.  One of these has led me to pursue a career in Delaware.  With the current economic climate, affording my own Vermont farm is many years off, and jobs in my field are a bit scarce. Delaware presents many new opportunities and experiences for a recent college graduate in the agricultural industry.  Someday, I hope to bring my little flock back to the state that will probably always be my home.  In the meantime, I’ll pack up my crew and head down this winter.  Fifteen sheep, two goats, a dog, and a twenty-year-old – what could possibly go wrong?”

LS: How do you manage risk?

There is only so much you can do to manage risk on a farm. We are at the mercy of the weather not only locally but nationally.  Feed and fuel prices are beyond our control.  Disease can plague even the best managed flock.  We all have bad years.  Minimizing the damage is the best we can do by having a plan for any crisis.

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Posted in Farmer Profiles, Goals, Land access, Quality of Life, Risk management, Scaling up | Tagged , , , , ,

Drought Relief for Livestock Producers in VT-Apply by October 19

COLCHESTER, VT, October 1, 2018–The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced that livestock producers impacted by drought are encouraged to apply by October 19, 2018, to receive assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The financial assistance will help farmers install conservation practices to help alleviate limited water supplies.

The National Integrated Drought Information System reports that drought conditions are present across eighty percent of Vermont. “We have heard that more than twenty farmers in the driest parts of the state have been hauling water to keep their farms operational,” said Vermont NRCS State Conservationist Vicky Drew.

The EQIP assistance will help farmers install practices including, but not limited to, pipelines, wells, pumps, livestock watering facilities, and spring development. EQIP payments are based on 75% of the typical costs to install these practices, but do not cover all costs, including electrical hook-ups for new pumps.

Farmers in the eligible counties can contact their NRCS office to submit an application by the October 19 deadline. Applications must be approved by NRCS prior to starting the practice to be eligible for funding through EQIP. An expedited process for gaining approval will be in place during the three week sign up period.

USDA is an equal opportunity employer, provider, and lender

Posted in News

On the Lookout for Smut

This season (2018), the UVM Extension Northwest Crops and Soils Team is interested in collecting smut infected grain heads with a goal of identifying all smut disease that are present in the Northeast. If you find smut infected grain heads in your field(s) please contact Erica Cummings at Erica.cummings@uvm.edu or 802-656-5392.

Smuts are one of the easiest grain diseases to spot in the field.smutphoto1

As winter and spring grains begin to head out and flower, you can start to see the visual signs of smut. There are several types of the smut pathogen found in the Northeast: Loose smut (Wheat = Ustilago tritici / Barley = U. nuda), False loose smut (Barley = U. nigra / Oats = U. avenae), and Covered smut (Barley = U. hordei).

Loose smut: During spike or head emergence, diseased heads emerge slightly earlier than healthy ones and appear as a mass of dark brown spores covered with paper-like membrane. This membrane tears easily as healthy plants begin to flower, and windblown spores infect the embryos of developing seed. After the fungus invades the grain seed embryo, it remains dormant until the seed is planted and germinates. Infected plants appear to be normal, but develop smutted heads.

Covered smut: Infected plants are often stunted and heads may not completely emerge. During spike or head emergence, diseased heads emerge at the same time, or slightly later than healthy ones and appear as mass of dark brown spores covered with paper-like membrane. This membrane ruptures at plant maturity or during threshing, and the spores infect healthy seed and soil. Covered smut spores are not typically wind-dispersed. The fungal spores remain dormant on seed coat until the seed is planted and germinates. Infected plants appear to be normal, but develop smutted heads.

Planting contaminated seed, especially in organic systems, can exponentially increase grain infection rates, resulting in yield reductions; 100% of the smutted heads are lost. Eating smut infected grain poses no harmful health effects and doesn’t appear to impact baking quality.

Control

  • If you find smutted heads in your fields, do not save the seed.
  • Plant certified or otherwise high-quality, disease-free seed.
  • Plant resistant varieties.
  • Infected seed can be treated with various fungicides in conventional systems.

**If you find smutted heads in your fields, please contact Erica Cummings, erica.cummings@uvm.edu, phone: (802) 656-5392.

Posted in News

Does Crop Insurance pay in Vermont?

The severe dust storms that occurred during “The Dust Bowl” in the 1930’s caused catastrophic damage to the American and Canadian plains ecology. In response to the devastating agricultural losses due to those drought conditions, Congress established the first Federal Crop Insurance Program.  The early crop insurance efforts were not very successful, and the programs have evolved greatly over the decades.

Visit the NCIS web site – that’s National Crop Insurance Services – and you can find a great deal of information about the “hows” and “whys” of all the federally supported crop insurance programs.  They report that more than 90% of insurable farmland in the United States is now protected through the federal crop insurance program.

However, Vermont farms are considered to be “underserved” by crop insurance. Farms in Vermont and all the northeastern states are typically different than the farms and ranches in other regions of the country.  Many of the enterprises are smaller in total acres and produce more diversified commodities.

NCIS indicates that Vermont crops contribute $889 million to the state’s economy and in 2017, farmers purchased 344 crop insurance policies to cover 70,883 acres, which provided $24.5 million in liability protection. Farmers paid $1 million for this insurance coverage and Crop insurers paid $3.5 million to cover crop losses.

The USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA) administers the Federal Crop Insurance Program. A public-private partnership between the U.S. government and private insurance companies combines private sector delivery systems with regulatory and financial support of the federal government.  Crop insurance premiums are subsidized by the federal government to make coverage more affordable for agricultural producers.

Should YOU have crop insurance coverage? First, consider all of the potential production and marketing risks for your enterprise.  Then, meet with an agent licensed to sell crop insurance in your state to learn about all the options available for your operation.  Crop insurance may be the right risk management tool for your farm business plan.

For more information, contact Jake Jacobs, UVM Agricultural Risk Management and Crop Insurance Education Coordinator, Morrill Hall, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT, email jake.jacobs@uvm.edu, phone 802-656-7356.

Visit the NCIS website:   https://cropinsuranceinamerica.org/

Visit the USDA RMA web site:   https://www.rma.usda.gov/

Photo credit: http://kbaela7.blogspot.com/2014/01/monday-11314-out-of-dust-poem-and.html

This material is funded in partnership with USDA, Risk Management Agency, under award number RM17RMETS524005. Any reference to commercial products, trade names, or brand names is for information only, and no endorsement or approval is intended. Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture. University of Vermont Extension, Burlington, Vermont. University of Vermont Extension, and U.S. Department of Agriculture, cooperating, offer education and employment to everyone without regard to race, color, national origin, gender, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, and marital or familial status.

Posted in Insurance, Resources for Beginning Farmers, Risk management

What Are USDA Risk Management Programs? 

by Jake Jacobs, UVM Crop Insurance Education Coordinator

Farming is risky business. No matter how well your farm is managed, or the steps you take to reduce the risks in your operation, unexpected events can cause losses that may severely impact your farm’s viability. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides programs for farmers and ranchers to help manage the many types of agricultural risk that they routinely face operating their enterprises and to moderate potential losses. 

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Jake Jacobs, UVM Crop Insurance Education Coordinator

Crop Insurance USDA crop insurance programs are available to producers as a tool to help manage production and market risks on farming operations. Crop insurance programs are administered by the Risk Management Agency (RMA) and are available only from private insurance agents licensed by USDA. Like other types of insurance, you need to decide what risks you want to cover and enroll prior to any loss. Once you find out about your crop insurance options, you can then make an informed decision about enrolling or managing those risks some other way. 

Disaster Assistance  USDA also provides disaster assistance programs through the Farm Service Agency (FSA). These programs help agricultural producers recover from natural disasters that cause losses not covered by other programs. An example of a disaster assistance program available through FSA is the Noninsured Disaster Assistance Program (NAP). 

Price Support  Through FSA, farmers and ranchers can access programs and services that provide financial assistance in the form of loans or market loss assistance. Examples include Commodity Loans, Facility Loans and the Dairy Margin Protection Program for Dairy Producers (MPP-Dairy). 

Your Risk Management Plan The only truly predictable part of farming is how unpredictable it can be! Consider those factors that pose a risk to your enterprise and make decisions about how you can minimize losses caused by unplanned weather or market events. 

An insurance agent can present all the insurance options and programs available for your farm. To find an agent licensed to sell crop insurance in Vermont, go to the RMA Agent locator.

This material is funded in partnership with USDA, Risk Management Agency, under award number RM17RMETS524005. Any reference to commercial products, trade names, or brand names is for information only, and no endorsement or approval is intended. Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture. University of Vermont Extension, Burlington, Vermont. University of Vermont Extension, and U.S. Department of Agriculture, cooperating, offer education and employment to everyone without regard to race, color, national origin, gender, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, and marital or familial status.

USDA LogoLogo for the University of Vermont College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

 

Posted in Financial Mgmt, Insurance, Resources for Beginning Farmers, Risk management