Early season rains are one of the pragmatic reasons why Nicole and Ryan have been looking differently at their farm, which they purchased in 2015. For two years running, their farm, Golden Well, suffered a loss. In 2016, the bridge and road to their farm in New Haven, Vermont was shut down for repairs, so customers had minimal access and in 2017, the New Haven River hopped the banks and flooded their planted fields. Now, in spring 2018 with the New Haven River running high, Nicole and Ryan are prepared.
As Nicole says, “When you put numbers on paper you expect the projections to come true. But things happen. In our first year, the bridge out and the closed road foiled all our plans. How do you build a farmstand when people can’t get there?”
New Haven river bordering Golden Well
Nicole and Ryan have figured out this challenge. Because of flooding and marketing risk, they have shifted to growing berries and fruits, and instead of a traditional CSA, they offer farmstand credits.
For example, you buy credit for $200 or $300 and then you can pick what you want, when you want with a bonus of 10% extra credit. This also means more flexibility for Golden Well to offer the produce that they have when they have it without being constrained by a growing season that is different than they expected
This coming season, farm events with prepared foods are new features including farm to ballet and the Community Farming Project where the community is invited to come get their hands dirty – an intersection between CSA and a community garden. Golden Well also offers Airbnb stays at the farm. Overall, farming now represents only a small slice, of Golden Well’s income. Its number one earner is its Kombucha called “Apis” now selling in over 20 shops in Vermont. Ryan, working with a distributor this year to expand sales, says, “Everyone I know who is farming has job off the farm or another enterprise.”
Apis Honey Kombucha at Golden Well
How did young farmers with big ideas afford their farm?
Nicole and Ryan worked closely with Steve Paddock, Vermont Small Business Development Center to create an enterprise budge and business plan for the next five years. With this in hand, they were able to apply for a loan to purchase their farm from VEDA and FSA loan as co-lenders. They also received an operating loan at 1% from FSA through their young farming program. Another requirement for this operating loan was to show three years of filing Schedule F for farming income on their tax returns. For more information on loans, see FSA’s Farm Loan Compass.
With financing in place for their farm purchase, Nicole and Ryan were able to combine their two pursuits, wellness and farming, which started off in separate locations, to one integrated place – Golden Well Sanctuary for Spirit and Nature. Nicole now runs a popular nine-month course called “Women’s Wisdom – Voices of the Well.” She has put to great use her entrepreneurial and creative skills, many of which she learned from her mother who ran a fashion business. As Nicole describes, “The way I was raised gave me confidence. I was not boxed in to certain way of living or thinking. Exposed to lots of cultures. I had spirit of adventure. I visited my grandmother in Vermont. She sewed, gardened, and made pies, eight at a time. She could can all her food for the winter.”
Golden Well farm house and barn
What advice do Ryan and Nicole give to new farmers considering farming or a farm purchase?
Nicole and Ryan say, “Maybe we would have bought this place with partners.” Nicole adds, “I work an 80-hour week and have a young daughter so there’s a lot of pressure.” Ryan mentions, “Surviving as a small farm is very difficult. If we want to farm in that way, we need to form more cooperatives to reach wider and larger markets. It’s hard to meet the demands when you’re dealing with massive distribution channels, which have constant availability and consistency. Through cooperatives, this could be possible.”
Nicole and Ryan also point to NOFA-VT farmer services . They worked with a farm mentor, Mimi Ornstein, who helped them set realistic goals. As Nicole describes, “these were not just monetary, but also lifestyle oriented – what’s sustainable in terms of hours for our lifestyle. We updated our business plan and made projections and matched up hours with outcomes and we started managing time according to what’s financially sustainable.”
Vermont has “amazing” resources on offer to help farms in enterprise and business planning including Vermont Small Business Development Center and UVM’s Farm Viability Program. Nicole advises, “As tempting as agritourism may sound, make sure you know about the red tape with your town.” When considering a new enterprise, in addition to the finances, some legal questions to address are:
- What are the permitted uses in your town’s zoning regulations for your property?
- What uses require applications with the State?
- Is a yurt or other farm-related structure considered an accessory unit?
- Are farm-to-table dinners a farm use or a business use?
It’s worth reading your town’s plan ahead of time to learn about your town’s strategic goals so you’re working with them, not tilting at windmills. Working more closely with town planners early on can avoid problems later. If agreements are made, Nicole suggests getting them in writing, as memories can be short.
Summing up, Nicole adds, “With small farming, the margins are small and nature is unpredictable, so it’s important to find ways to diversify and grow relations with your community of farmers, colleagues, customers, and mentors. And just as important is having enough of a relationship with your land to understand its rhythms and its unique gifts.”