Alternative to selling helps novice farmers and keep land in production
By Garland Mason | March 10,2013
A two-acre Pawlet sweet-potato farm tucked between the Mettowee River and the steep slopes of Haystack Mountain has returned fallow farmland to production — while offering new beginnings for a young farming family.
Barbara Moore grew up on the land where the potatoes are grown. Back then, her family raised cattle and chickens. Moore still owns the property, which boasts some of the most fertile soils in the Mettowee Valley.
Moore’s neighbors, Tim and Brooke Hughes-Muse, moved to Pawlet a few years ago. Since then they have been busy raising their four daughters and dreaming of having their own farm. The couple explored various farming ventures on their small property and tossed around ideas for a bigger endeavor.
When the idea came, they knew it made sense — sweet potatoes. In this warm little pocket of fertile Mettowee soils, sweet potatoes would thrive. The Hughes-Muses approached their neighbor with a proposition to lease her fallow farmland.
Eager to see her family’s land back in production and excited to help foster a new generation of farmers, Moore agreed.
“I thought it was a great idea to have some of our land return to active use as a working farm,” Moore says. “This seemed like a perfect meeting of mutual needs.”
The young couple then got to work developing what would become Laughing Child Farm.
Moore stresses the importance of communication between landowner and farmer. She says, “We have a great working relationship that I attribute to frequent, clear communication. Since we see one another often as neighbors, it’s especially easy to keep the communication line open from both directions.”
Moore also emphasizes the benefits of having a written lease rather than the more common handshake agreement. “Having a detailed lease agreement in place was important to avoid potential problems,” she says. “Tim and I will also sit down at the one-year mark to review the lease agreement and see if any changes need to be made.”
The first season, those two acres of land yielded a bountiful crop of delicious, organic sweet potatoes — some 33,000 pounds. The Laughing Child Farm tubers are sold to restaurants, grocery stores, food service companies and at farmers markets.
New farmers come from diverse backgrounds. Some are starting second careers, while others are younger people with big dreams and limited capital. And there are the “junior-generation” farmers who have grown up on the family farm and are getting ready to branch out on their own.
Supporting young farmers is crucial to preserving Vermont’s working landscape. But new farmers face many challenges, such as getting access to land and finding the necessary up-front costs.
Agricultural land in Vermont is largely inaccessible to new farmers. The price of land is often prohibitive. And finding suitable property can also be a daunting task. Leasing farmland is often the best option for start-up farms.
In Hyde Park, Nicole Duch and Ben Uris of Hatch Brook Gardens operate their farm on leased land. Duch praises the arrangement.
“We have no land or family in the area, so this arrangement got our farm up and running,” she says. “Without the generosity of Applecheek Farm, our operation would not be as advanced as it currently is.”
Duch emphasizes the challenges of long-term planning and making capital improvements on rented land. The couple is currently seeking a more permanent situation, either through purchase or a longer-term lease.
Despite the significant challenges, many new farmers find that starting with leased land — rather than tying up limited equity in a land purchase — is essential to developing a successful farm business.
The Rutland Area Farm and Food Link, or RAFFL, is working to support new farmers in the county, especially non-farming landowners who may be interested in leasing land to new farmers.
“Over the years various farm-and-landowner linking programs have been developed,” says Tara Kelly, RAFFL’s executive director.
But this initial link is not quite enough. “There are so many factors and variables with each piece of land — and landowners’ ideas of what it means to have someone else farming that land — that a deeper level of support is needed to successfully make a match,” Kelly says.
For expertise in farmland leasing, RAFFL has partnered with the nonprofit group Land For Good, which recently created the comprehensive resource “A Landowner’s Guide to Leasing Land for Farming.”
Thanks to this partnership, farmland seekers and non-farming landowners in the Rutland region can get one-on-one assistance from RAFFL free of charge.
Ben Waterman of UVM Extension’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture coordinates similar efforts. He manages the Land Access Program, which helps farmers connect with land that is affordable and accessible.
Land for Good and the Vermont Land Trust also work statewide to ensure that new farmers have access to land and that prime farmland is preserved and protected from development.
From the landowner’s perspective, Barbara Moore of Pawlet observes, “I love having the farm in use. It’s fascinating to watch Tim and Brooke’s business move through the seasons — from planting to tending the fields to harvesting to selling.”
Landowners in Vermont can support new farmers who are working to revitalize Vermont’s agriculture and supply fresh, nourishing food to their communities. These partnerships are helping to preserve Vermont’s agricultural heritage and foster new family farms across the state.
Garland Mason lives in West Tinmouth, where she raises beef cattle, oats, pigs and poultry. She works for RAFFL and can be contacted at Garland@rutlandfarmandfood.org or 417-1499.