by Courtney Llewellyn
The Vermont House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry has been meeting virtually via Zoom with farmers from around the Green Mountain State this year. On Jan. 15, the committee spoke with four farmers about where they’ve been – and where they’d like Vermont ag policy to go.
Leading the meeting was Ag Committee Chair Rep. Carolyn Partridge. She was joined by Reps. Rodney Graham, Heather Surprenant, Terry Norris, Tom Bock, Vicki Strong and John O’Brien and farmers Ashlyn McClurg (Rebop Farm), Abbie Corse (Corse Family Farm), Suzanne Long (Luna Bleu Farm), Norah Lake (Sweetland Farm).
Each farmer introduced themselves and their farms to begin the conversation. McClurg’s farm has been part of Organic Valley since 2008. They have 54 milking cows and about 90 cows total in a closed herd. They have conservation easements on 300 acres of open pasture, sod/hayland and forest, and steward about 200 acres between 26 landlords. She’s newly became a partner in the farm with her parents.
Corse has a diversified livestock operation with a small dairy and seven different meat enterprises. There are 32 acres on their home farm and they’re working with a number of landlords too. Corse Farm had about 30 concerts and events scheduled for 2020 that were cancelled, but because they sell directly to consumers, their business increased about sevenfold from April through July before decreasing a bit. “We really had to invest in our infrastructure to not work 90-hour weeks,” Corse said. “It was a year of buying new equipment and trying not to kill ourselves.”
Long and her husband Tim Sanford own and manage a diversified 42-acre organic farm. They run a vegetable CSA but began raising livestock and poultry (their daughter Shona Sanford-Long took over the beef, sheep and pig operation through her Flying Dog Farm). “The home farm is not enough for her, and she’s been doing a great job managing pasture here and on other pieces of land. That’s her big challenge now,” Long said. She added that like McClurg, they saw a big uptick in sales early in the pandemic.
Sweetland Farm came about because Lake and her husband had an opportunity to buy land through the Vermont Land Trust through its Farmland Access Program. They are primarily a vegetable CSA but have also raised pastured meat (pork and broilers) and square bale hay. They’re looking for other ways to diversify their land and have a more resilient income stream. “We have struggled to make our financial numbers over the past couple years. Amazingly, and somewhat guiltily, I say that COVID has been very kind to us,” Lake said. “We sold out of CSA shares for the first time this year, which was a huge boon to us.” They also increased their meat production and saw high demand for that. They added a farm stand this year to supplement the CSA and reached out through farmer networks to sell goods from throughout the state at the stand.
The livestock operations run by McClurg and Corse are seeing issues this winter with a lack of feed resulting from the drought in 2020. “For the first time ever, we took all of the first cut to go into our ag bags and we still weren’t able to produce as much as we normally would, which means we didn’t have any to sell,” McClurg said.
Corse said they buy all their forage, so they’re depending on other farms to help them get through winter. Lake added, “We also depend on neighboring farms for hay. We want to see our networks become more resilient.”
Corse and McClurg mentioned their less-than-ideal soil types when introducing their farms.
“That’s something this committee has been talking about – soil health, carbon sequestration. We’ve started talking about a more resilient food system,” Partridge said. “What does it take? In order to provide 50% of our food, would need 200 million more acres in the Northeast. There is a lot of land in Maine, and it is getting warmer. It’s exciting to look into that.”
What Do Farmers Need?
Surprenant asked where farmers could use more support or information. Corse was forthright in her response.
“The intersections between farming and caregiving are not addressed in any way. They weren’t before COVID or during COVID, and because I’m cynical, they probably won’t be after,” she said. “It was heartbreaking to hear about mothers trying to cope with a first pregnancy or a first baby while putting out a 400-person CSA. That should not be their experience. There’s a lot of work to do as more and more women are becoming predominant in farm ownership. This is one of the most prominent issues – rural life, rural community, school, education and childcare tie into all of that.
“We do our farmers and citizens a disservice when we try to put ag into its own separate container. It’s all connected,” she continued. “If we want to feed our people with our Vermont farmers, how can we make it so young people can access land, pay their bills and have reliable childcare so they can feed our people?”
When Partridge asked specifically what could make this issue better, Corse replied that rural communities need accessible childcare, including more home daycares – “make the policies of the state meet the moment,” she said.
Rep. Strong inquired how the farmers were planning for the next growing season. Lake said last spring, they went on a “buy everything” campaign, and this year, they’re planning to stockpile supplies early again. “We’re fortunate a lot of our income comes early in the season. But the scary question mark is how will sales go in 2021? 2020 was a boom year, and people were passionate about local food,” she said.
They raise about 600 birds at Sweetland Farm, and Lake said she’s thankful for Vermont’s on-farm slaughter regulation (which allows for fewer than 1,000 birds to be slaughtered on-site). Like many other meat producers, though, they faced delays in setting slaughter dates for other animals in 2020. She wondered if the state could make changes in on-farm slaughter regulations to help with that.
McClurg, whose farm is outside Brattleboro, said they’re going to need a significant investment in their infrastructure in order to meet demand. “We’re selling out of chickens … but we don’t have a lot of infrastructure in the southern part of the state. We can’t expand,” she said.
“It’s hard to make an argument for an increase in the number of animals to be slaughtered on-farm when the registrations just don’t happen,” Partridge said. “I get that people want an increased number, but people aren’t actually registering for the program.”
A question posed by Rep. O’Brien asked the farmers if they’d prefer to get bigger or see more small farms meeting local demand.
“Success means allowing people to access nourishing, nutrient-dense, healthy food. We need more farmers,” Corse said. “It can be very lonely trying to do this without a peer group. I think of it as more, not bigger.”
“I want to see more like me. I don’t want to get bigger – that would be too stressful,” McClurg added. Lake said that farmers in the state want to build on what’s already there to create a “nurturing web.”
Rep. Graham stated, “We need to get to a point where we believe that all ag is important, whether it’s vegetable, beef cow or milk tank – we need it all. Size doesn’t matter, success does.”
And as always, the issue of land access was raised. “Speaking as a young farmer, that access to land element is such a challenge,” Surprenant said. “When we talk about building upon already existing farms – I rent my land from an 82-year-old farmer. Intergenerational cooperation is so important for our communities.”
Corse wondered if there might be a better way to “connect the dots,” such as a map of the state with available land listed. “Grant money is set aside to conserve land that is most likely to be developed, but it’s not necessarily with an eye on what land would be best for agriculture,” she stated. “That needs to be considered.”
What else could Vermont do to make local agriculture more resilient and local food more affordable? Those who would like to add to the conversation are invited to contact the Ag Committee via legislature.vermont.gov/committee/detail/2022/8.