Spotlight on Kate Spring, Good Heart Farmstead

By Suzy Hodgson, UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture

A vegetarian for six years, Kate Spring, Good Heart Farmstead, had been interested in sustainable farming since graduating with an Environmental Studies and English degree in 2009. But after reading Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, Kate wanted to revisit her relationship with animals and meat. As she describes it, “my main impetus and reason to start farming was to start eating meat. I’d learned a lot about food systems and wanted hands-on experience on a small farm, to see what it’s really like to raise livestock. It was a pretty personal way into farming.”

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Kate’s first job was working with Mari Omland and Laura Olsen at their farm, Green Mountain Girls Farm.  Kate described her first day, “On day one, I milked goats and helped raise chickens, turkeys, pigs, and lambs. I was Green Mountain Girls’ first employee so I did a little bit of everything, from moving animals to new pastures, to helping set up their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). I got a taste of all those things.”

I was Green Mountain Girls’ first employee so I did a little bit of everything.

Getting a closer relationship with local farming and food, Kate realized that she not only loved the farming, but also relished the interaction with customers. At her next job, she was ready for some management experience and was hired as a school garden supervisor. This was her second summer farming but first time in a management role at Calypso Farm, an educational farm in Fairbanks, Alaska. Kate ran the summer program for kids and managed the CSA.  She met Edge, her husband-to-be, who was in his fourth year at Calypso and was key staff member.

Working with kids 10 to 14 years old, Kate saw how farms can have a large impact on food accessibility, particularly in a low-income area.  As Kate found out, “Most kids didn’t know anything about vegettables. With the sun never setting during an Alaskan summer, veggies grow really fast providing lots of learning opportunites. Calypso played a transformational role in the neighborhood with kids feeling pride in their surroundings, a sense of belonging and contributing.”

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What Kate learned at Calypso inspired her and provided the framework for starting her own farm in Vermont.  Looking back to the start, Kate realizes her farm looks different than her and Edge’s original inspiration. As Kate explains, “When we started, our original vision was creating a full diet, full-year farm feeding 40 families. We had an idea for a big homestead to feed families with sheep, chicken, turkeys, pigs and a separate CSA for veggies. It was too much for two people to do all that at once, if we wanted to do everything well.”

It’s easier to have someone come water veggies than wrangle a sheep if we want to go camping. 

Finishing their fifth season in 2017, Good Heart Farmstand is fine tuning, figuring out what they do well. Over three years, they’ve dropped the livestock, focusing instead on salad greens for wholesale markets, particularly restuarants. As Kate puts it, “we were more effective veggies growers than livestock farmers. And the price of seeds is less than the price of grain. We also enjoy the lifestyle and flexibility, as it’s easier to have someone come water veggies than wrangle a sheep if we want to go camping.” Moreover, Edge and Kate found that accessing veggie markets at the price they needed to cover the costs was easier than the price point needed for pasture-raised meats.

Summing it up, Kate says, “Our farm is ‘what we like doing, what we’re effective at doing, and what we can sell well.”

Posted in Farmer Profiles, Goals, Leadership, Marketing, Quality of Life, Resources for Beginning Farmers | Tagged

Should I Have Crop Insurance?

By Jake Jacobs, Crop Insurance Education Coordinator, University of Vermont

Finances are especially tight for many Vermont farmers right now. Is it worthwhile to pay for crop insurance? To answer that question, farmers need to carefully evaluate their business risks as well as the costs and potential benefits of crop insurance.

Know Your Risks. Without crop insurance, what production and revenue risks is your agricultural enterprise exposed to? Start by assessing your farm’s projected bottom line. How much does your profitability depend on the productivity of your crops? How volatile is the market for your product(s)?

Crop insurance is one risk management tool, providing financial security for farmers and their businesses in the event of a weather-related disaster, a shift in market conditions or certain other unforeseeable circumstances. The unpredictability of market conditions and the weather can devastate a farm’s profitability and the indemnity payments received from crop insurance can make the difference between a catastrophic business loss and the ability to continue farming following a shattering event.

With provisions implemented in the 2014 Farm Bill, crop insurance is an integral part of U.S. farm policy. Today, crop insurance protects more than 90 percent of the nation’s planted acreage, and as a public-private partnership, it replaces more costly disaster bills that were used in the past. With federal subsidies, crop insurance is more affordable and the expanding options make coverage available to more producers, including specialty crop growers, organic producers and new and beginning farmers.

A crop insurance indemnity payment won’t match what a farmer can receive from harvesting a good crop. As with homeowner’s or auto insurance, the farmer has to pay a deductible and any loss has to be verified. But crop insurance may provide some peace of mind in the face of variable conditions in an inherently risky business.

Take action now so you can make an informed decision. Contact a licensed crop insurance agent to determine the best coverage and program for your farm. Consider crop insurance as part of your overall farm business plan to decide if it fits into your risk management efforts. You can find a licensed crop insurance agent by going to

Not sure how to select a crop insurance agent?  What matters is the quality of service and how well the agent meets your needs. Here’s how most farmers would describe a good agent.

The 2018 deadline for most spring-planted crops is March 15, 2018.

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USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer. This material is funded by partnership with USDA, Risk Management Agency, under award number RM17RMETS524005

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Organic Decision Support Tools Project Seeks Farmer Cooperators

Researchers at the Universities of Illinois and Vermont are collaborating in a study to improve cover crop biomass and nitrogen estimates for farmers in the Midwest and Northeast to improve N credits for nutrient planning. Results will be incorporated into goCrop, the nutrient planning tool developed by University of Vermont Extension. goCrop screen captureThe project is seeking on-farm cover crop measurements (height, % ground cover, maturity) and cover crop and soil samples in the spring of 2018 at the time of cover crop termination.

Cooperators need to be:

  • Located in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont
  • Currently growing rye, clover, hairy vetch, alfalfa, alone or in mixes
  • Using mechanical termination and organic fertility

Participating farmers will receive:

  • $50 stipend
  • Personalized report of cover crop biomass and nitrogen content
  • Free 10-meter satellite imagery (vegetation index and color images) for any fields in the program

Interested farmers can sign up here.

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What to Expect from A Crop Insurance Agent

By Jake Jacobs
Crop Insurance Education Coordinator, University of Vermont

Your crop insurance agent is the link between you and the Federal safety net for agriculture. Crop insurance is available only from private insurance agents licensed by USDA. All agents receive federally mandated training and pass a competency exam to be licensed by the USDA. Given that the prices for all crop insurance policies are set by USDA’s Risk Management Agency, how do you decide on an agent?

What matters is the quality of service and how well the agent meets your needs. Here’s how most farmers would describe a good agent.

Has personal integrity

The agent should be honest. You need to know that your production records and other personal information will be kept confidential. You also need to feel confident that the agent will deal with you in ethical ways.

Knows crop insurance and the agribusiness environment

The agent must be able to provide the information you need to answer critical production questions and help you make important management decisions. Agents must have a thorough working knowledge of all the different types of policies that are available in your area. They also need an understanding of the ‘big picture’, including their role and the roles of others who affect your decisions. The agribusiness environment is complex, so they need to understand marketing and its interaction with crop insurance products.

Communicates well

A good agent is able to clearly explain what policies are available and the protection they offer. The ability to communicate effectively with others — both orally and in writing — is critical. People who communicate well are typically excellent problem solvers because they listen and can address sensitive issues.

Is a team player

Today’s farmers need a team of advisors, including lenders, insurance agents, lawyers, agronomists, feed representatives, veterinarians, accountants, brokers, and other specialists. Successful agents realize that they are a part of your team. At your direction, they should be able to explain how crop insurance will work to your lender or other team members. Your lender may be especially interested since crop insurance can sometimes be used to secure your loan.

Stays current

The proliferation of crop insurance products and the changing nature of the Federal program represent major challenges for an agent. To provide the quality of service you need, your agent must be committed to an ongoing education program.

Provides guidance

A good agent helps find the best product-to-farming-operation fit to meet your risk management goals. Besides answering technical questions about crop insurance programs and products, your agent should be able to explain how crop insurance products support your marketing business plans.

Availability and support with deadlines and compliance

Throughout the year, you must meet critical deadlines and provisions to adhere to the terms of your insurance contract. A good agent will provide you with an accurate quote before the enrollment deadline and help you meet all policy deadlines and requirements by providing timely reminders and assistance as needed. Good agents know that convenience is important and that you are often strapped for time at critical points during the year. As a result, they will make themselves available when and where you need help.

Is in for the long haul

Finally, a crop insurance agent should be interested in building and maintaining a long-term client relationship. Look for someone who maintains lasting relationships with clients.

Next step?

To locate a licensed crop insurance agent in your area, you may want to start by getting a recommendation from your neighbors. Or go to the “Agent Locator” on the RMA website

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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 the 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. This material is funded in partnership with USDA, Risk Management Agency, under award number RM17RMETS524005.


Posted in Insurance, Resources for Beginning Farmers, Risk management

Staying Competitive in Maturing Local Food Markets

“As local food markets mature and competition increases, it’s becoming harder for experienced farmers to maintain market share and new farmers to break in”, says Rose Wilson, business development expert.  In a maturing market, while overall direct sales of Vermont farms are increasing, the rate of growth is decreasing.

This means that for Vermont farmers, the average revenue per farmer is faltering as more farms and more local food add to the competition.  USDA Vermont census data shows that total direct agricultural sales continued to increase from 2007 to 2012, but the rate of increase declined and the average sales per farm dropped from $15,511 in 2007 to $13,245 in 2012.

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Increasing competition also means that big brands and stores have joined the marketplace with greater professionalism so that maintaining market share and retaining customers require more effort

The farms that will survive and thrive in a mature market:

  1. Understand their customers
  2. Use market segmentation
  3. Are able to innovate with new products, services, and distribution channels,.
  4. Have a strong brand
  5. Can withstand price pressure
  6. Provide a great customer experience
  7. Focus on increasing communication and visibility

In maturing markets, farms need not only the early adopters and avid localvores, but also need to appeal to a broader and less committed audience. New potential consumers, less committed to core values of local food, will give greater weight to price and convenience in their decision, to buy or not to buy. A typical new product adoption curve encompasses:

  • Innovators: First people to join a CSA
  • Early Adopters: Farmers market regulars
  • Early Majority: Whole Foods, Co-op shoppers
  • Late Majority: Walmart, Supermarket shoppers
  • Laggards: Not driven by values, unlikely to seek out local food

Customers & Market matures

With local food now mainstream, this is a key time to use market research and assess your target markets. Who are your customers now, and could be your customers tomorrow?

More mainstream new customers will expect you to come to them as they have plenty of providers and choices available.

Here are some tips to help farmers identify market trends and differentiate themselves:

  1. Make a list of all the different types of people (e.g., mom, athletes, families, single folks, sports fans, millenials, baby boomers, ethnicities, income levels, avid readers, animal lovers, nature enthusiasts, etc.).
  2. Describe the characteristics of each audience.   Each will have different needs, habits, expectations, motivations, interests, values, and methods of communication.
  3. Research what is important to them, how to package, price and communicate a message which resonates and can acted upon.
  4. Evaluate methods of communication–where do customers shop, how do they absorb information, where do they learn about new products/services–do they read newspapers/magazines, listen to the radio, watch TV, use the web, text, e-mail.  If social media, which channels–Facebook, Instagram?

Within this larger community of consumers are many little communities, each trying to be heard and represented. You’re likely to find that as unit margins go down, the volume of units may go up, or profits from new services or products offset lower profits from mature products. So, all in all, you can continue to grow or stabilize your market.

For example, in February, Jasper Hill titled its e-newsletter “We’ve Got Game Time Snacks Covered!”   Jasper Hill is turning to mainstream America to attract a new market of Superbowl fans, not the typical high-end cheese audience.  In addition to the football message, the company has now created a more convenient product for everyday cooking.  Importantly, the cheese didn’t change, but it now comes in a pre-selected cooking blend, pre-shredded, in a resealable Ziplock bag.  Similarly, farmers and local food companies which provide meal kits have a strategy to respond to the demand for convenience.

Jasper Hill new packaging w:out title

Jasper Hill original product… New convenience offering.  Rose Wilson, National Viability Conference, 2017

Even when there’s not a lot to communicate,  big brands have learned that there are opportunities to rebrand by updating packaging or tweaking a product attribute as in “new look, same great taste!”; “new and improved!”

  • Can your product benefit from a different form, packaging, logo, tagline, and/or marketing materials?
  • Can you offer deals, sales, and incentives?
  • Can you cultivate brand loyalty in your existing customer base such that they still choose you over new competing entrants to the marketplace?
  • Do you have a contingency plan; if you can’t alter price, how will you communicate features and benefits, which make your product unique to maintain customer loyalty?

Innovation can mean inventing something new but not necessarily–it can simply mean producing, packaging or serving your product or your audience differently than before to retain or grab their attention. As the market matures and there are many more places to buy local food, the product begins to matter less and the customer service begins to matter more.  This means it’s time to evaluate your customer service. How could you be doing a better job?

  • Personalization matters: the customer needs to feel you’re speaking to their personal needs and interests. Sincerity matters.
  • Attitude and Demeanor matter: all staff and answering tools (automated v-mail, e-mail, etc.) need have a friendly and helpful voice.
  • Packaging and point of sale need to provide price, product & clear product attributes and usage information–people read labels and do want to know what things cost.

Communication & Visibility

When brands face increasing competition and consumers have more choices, communicating unique strengths and benefits is more important than ever.  Successful farmers find reasons to communicate with customers and do it regularly.  Repetition and more frequent communication can be a useful service to customers.  Jasper Hill sends out an e-mail every two weeks, whether or not they have something “noteworthy” to report. Three Cow Creamery started sending out an e-mail before a farmers market, reminding people to come and telling folks what happened that week on the farm. Even if the e-mail isn’t read, its subject title, if clear and concise, can be a good reminder about an upcoming farmers market.

Messages can also be linked to memorable days and actions e.g., Earth Day or Father’s Day flash sale or regular reminders about CSA pick up times.  Don’t forget key information such as phone number, e-mail, address and open times. A combination of off-line (e.g., postcards, signage) and on-line messages through social media can reinforces your messaging. And take advantage of free directories, such as your Chamber of Commerce, County food publications such as Addison’s Guide to Local Foods and Farms, as well as free online directories such as Google My Business (GMB) and Bing Places

In a nutshell, in a mature market, farmers need differentiated messages to convey their brand, products, and services repeatedly to reach each target audience using a mix of channels, which have been researched as effective. The fundamentals–a great product, a strong brand, and responsive customer service— will remain the foundation of a marketing strategy to thrive in the local food marketplace.  Need help?   Contact UVM Extension’s Farm Viability Team , Rose J. Wilson Business Development Services, and Vermont’s Small Business Development Center.

This article is adapted from Rose Wilson’s presentation MARKETING 201: Helping Farmers Stay Competitive in a Maturing Market, National Farm Viability Conference, Albany, 2017.


Posted in Facts & Figures, Financial Mgmt, Marketing, Resources for Beginning Farmers, Risk management