RAP Quiz Can Help New Livestock Farmers

By Emily Irwin, Orleans (VT) County Conservation District

Are you new to livestock farming in Vermont, and wondering what the Vermont Required Agricultural Practices (RAPS) mean for your operation?

RAPs are rules for agricultural land management that are intended to improve the quality ofVermont’s waters by reducing and eliminating cropland erosion, sediment losses, and nutrient losses.

RAP History

First adopted in 2015 and revised most recently in 2018, the RAPS outline nutrient, manure, and waste storage standards, establish requirements for vegetated buffer zones and livestock exclusion from surface water, and make recommendations for soil health.

crimsoncloverphoto

The RAPs also defined farm size more specifically, and required certification for small farms (for example, a certified small dairy farm has more than 50 mature dairy cows; there are other thresholds for other types of farms).

Help for Farmers

The Orleans County Natural Resources Conservation District – in collaboration with UVM Extension, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, the Vermont Association of Conservation Districts and local producers –  created an accessible, engaging, educational online course for livestock farmers of all size operations and agricultural service providers to learn about Vermont’s Required Agricultural Practices.

Continue reading
Posted in Production information, Resources for Beginning Farmers, Risk management

Spotlight on Full Belly Farm

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.”

IMG_1483.jpeg

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.”

IMG_1460.jpeg

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.

IMG_1478.jpeg

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.

Screen Shot 2020-01-11 at 3.54.08 PM

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.”

Posted in Facts & Figures, Farmer Profiles, Financial Mgmt, Goals, Insurance, Land access, Marketing, Quality of Life, Risk management | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Spotlight on Squier Family Farm

By Melissa Pasanen

The last year has been a big one for Meadow and Josh Squier. The couple took on their first mortgage for 300-plus acres of land, started building a house and welcomed a second child to their family—all while running their diversified Squier Family Farm in Middletown Springs

Meadow Squier and her daughter

When they started the farm in 2011 on family land with a ¼-acre of vegetables, six chickens and two goats, both worked off-farm and they raised their first $6,000 on the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform. As the Squiers gradually expanded the size, complexity and ambitions of their efforts, they carefully evaluated risks and rewards with the goal of building a sustainable business that contributes to a sustainable world.

Are we making money?

Meadow always knew she wanted to farm animals and had come to understand that they could play a key role in building soil health. On the other hand, Josh studied adventure recreation at Green Mountain College but, by the time he was a senior, he had also decided he wanted to farm. “Local food was in the zeitgeist,” Josh recalls. He worked for Greg Cox of Boardman Hill Farm in West Rutland who taught him that agriculture is both a business and a mission. “He was always asking, ‘Are we making money on this?’”

Meadow kept her job at a local school until two years ago, an invaluable base source of income and benefits for the couple. They also acknowledge their good fortune in being able to get established on family land with no debt. Starting with small FSA loans of $5,000 and $10,000 for equipment helped them set goals and prove that they could make regular payments. By the time the couple started working with their FSA loan officer on the recent big mortgage, she knew them well.  Meadow recalls, “She told us, ‘You have more work to do before this is going to happen.’” It took them a good year to develop the business plan and secure funding from FSA and the Vermont Agricultural Credit Corporation.

Taking the long view

Squier Family Farm has grown into a complex interwoven web of agricultural practices producing grass-fed beef and goat meat, goat milk soap, organic vegetables and vegetable starts, berries, rice, wood-boiled maple syrup and seasonal wreaths. They sell through a CSA, the Rutland Farmers’ market and also supply vegetables to the Farmacy Project of the Vermont Farmers Food Center that aims to increase access and consumption of healthy foods for at-risk families in Rutland County.

Rice drying to save seed for the next season, Squier Family Farm

Meadow and Josh take the long view. Even eight years in, Meadow says, “We’re just starting this.” With an eye to the future, the farmers have planted more than 2,500 hazelnut and chestnut trees along with mixed fruit trees such as apples, pears, plums, peaches and cherries. Their new acreage also provides the opportunity to cultivate trees that will produce high-value veneer logs in 60 years. “We’re young now,” Josh says. “We have energy. We’re planting trees and things that take time.”

The multi-faceted, long-term approach is a form of risk management. “We are thinking about a world where the weather is more erratic,” Josh says. Their exploration of agroforestry and silvo-pasture include planting trees like mulberry, poplar, willow and black locust. These species can provide some fodder for goats and cattle, reducing dependence on grass and hay during the increasing periods of drought. The trees also provide shade to protect grass, as well as windbreaks and shade for animals. “A combination of grazing and trees is the best thing in New England for sinking carbon,” says Josh. “This is how we can make Vermont more resilient.”

Silvo-pasture at Squier Family Farm

Division of labor

The couple splits responsibility between animal and vegetable production, each playing the supporting role to their partner’s area of focus. Josh takes the lead on vegetables, Meadow on livestock. They consult each other but “we don’t have to discuss every aspect,” she says. “You only have so much brain capacity,” Josh adds.

Over the years, they have made the time to educate themselves through conference workshops and UVM Extension programs, as well as relying on expertise from the Vermont Vegetable and Berry network. The couple uses Excel and QuickBooks to track agricultural and financial records with payments and incoming revenue deposits automated as much as possible.

They also make efforts to track their time and revenues by farm product, going so far as to use the stopwatch app on their phones This has provided helpful data leading them to prune certain vegetables from their roster and also scrutinize specific growing or other business practices. Some decisions are less about data than life balance; they have concluded that devoting whole days to the farmers market is harder with kids and, though the markets are usually profitable, they’re working on cultivating more wholesale markets in their mix.

No cookie cutters

While some might find the complexity of Squier Family Farm overwhelming, the Squiers relish the variety.  “One of the reasons farming is great is it isn’t cookie cutter,” says Josh. With two kids and a mortgage, the couple has a new set of tasks including evaluating life insurance policies and writing wills. They are both incredibly thankful for nearby family on both sides who help watch their little ones. “The childcare piece is enormous,” says Meadow. “Family and community make it work,” adds her husband.

 

squierfamilyfarm.com

Posted in Farm labor and human resources, Farmer Profiles, Financial Mgmt, Goals, Land access, Marketing, Quality of Life, Resources for Beginning Farmers, Risk management, Scaling up, sustainability | Tagged , , , , , , , ,