by Tara Kelly
The Mettowee valley running through Pawlet is Vermont’s working landscape exemplified. Farms define this area. Though less obvious is the web of relationships between farmers and landowners which sustains this area and, more recently, has allowed new farm enterprises to emerge that are firmly rooted in food production.
Laughing Child Farm is part of the new wave of farms starting up all over the region. Owners Tim Hughes-Muse and his wife Brooke met while attending Green Mountain College. After graduation, they committed themselves to pursuing a life of farming building upon Tim’s background and experience. But, as with any capital-intensive start-up business, getting a small- scale farm off the ground is challenging, often requiring significant financial resources. Over the past several years they have worked on area farms sometimes trading labor for access to land, sometimes as farm hands, always with the intention of having their own operation someday. Now, Tim and Brooke are launching their farm with organic sweet potatoes as their primary crop.
“We are on about our seventh business plan”, Tim explains. “Our first couple had a bit too much pie-in-the-sky thinking built in. Now, we are building our business based on a model that is full of healthy skepticism – anticipating the pitfalls and contemplating the hard questions.”
For Laughing Child Farm to come into reality, Tim and Brooke needed a stable land base to work from in order to put it into action. At first, they were accepted onto the incubator farm at the Intervale in Burlington and contemplated going there. But, what the Intervale had to offer turned out to be not quite what their business would need. “The Intervale is perfect for small, diversified vegetable farms”, Tim noted. “But sweet potatoes need specific infrastructure that is not there.” And, based on the Intervale’s incubator farm model they would need to move off within a few years. Since graduating college the Hughes-Muse family now has four “laughing children and relocating to Burlington meant breaking ties for their kids and themselves from a community to which they are very connected. So, Tim and Brooke refocused their attention locally.
In the end, the stars aligned. Tim and Brooke had a neighbor whose highly productive soils were in hay production. This neighbor’s father had been a farmer – and she was very interested in keeping her family land in agricultural production. When Tim approached her about the possibility of using her land it was the right thing at the right time. Their collision of interests has led to a 5-year lease between Laughing Child Farm and their neighbor. This lease has allowed Tim and Brooke to get the loans they needed to invest in their business and it has given the landowner a stable relationship with the new farmers using her land.
For years, RAFFL has focused on this critical partnership between landowners and beginning farmers. RAFFL even explored the idea of establishing an incubator farm similar to the Intervale in the Rutland region. However, as we examined the concept it became clear that it wasn’t a magic bullet. Given there are already available lands throughout our region where farmers can start or expand their businesses, RAFFL decided our resource were better spent helping new farmers in other ways. For farmers like Tim and Brooke with limited capital and no family land, finding the right land arrangement takes planning and perseverance. Fortunately, as they have discovered, lease agreements can be the key to getting onto land and building their farm business.
There are several excellent examples of farm businesses in our region operating on leased land. Groundworks Farm, Yoder Farm, Two Dog Farm, and Alchemy Gardens have all started-up in past few years operating on land they lease, borrow or trade skills for the right to use. Other, long-standing and successful farms, such as Dutchess Farm, have decided leasing is a long-term solution for their business.
A land leasing partnership can be a win-win arrangement for farmers and landowners. For landowners, the lease arrangement can facilitate enrollment of their land in the state’s Current Use Program, which offers significant property tax relief. The partnership offers a chance to put their land to work, preserve Vermont’s agricultural heritage and in the process, contribute to the expanding local farm and food movement.
This topic will be the focus of a workshop November 10th from 1-4PM in Rutland. Leasing Your Land to a Farmer will help landowners understand how they can assess their land, find a compatible farmer, consider issues such as liability and taxes, and craft a lease agreement. While most leases between landowners and farmers are sealed with a handshake, having a written agreement can ensure both parties’ expectations are met, providing the security a farmer needs and land stewardship a property owner seeks. A new handbook, A Landowner’s Guide to Leasing Land for Farming, prepared by Land For Good, will be discussed and made available at the workshop.
The workshop will feature specialists from Land for Good, UVM Extension and the Vermont Land Trust. It will also include a panel of farmers and landowners who have successfully established mutually beneficial land leases.
This workshop is the first step in a new partnership RAFFL has formed with Land for Good to help provide farmers and landowners in the Rutland region with the technical assistance and resources critical to help more farmers, like Tim and Brooke, achieve an economical start.
For more information about the Leasing Your Land to a Farmer workshop, please contact RAFFL at 417-7331. Registration is encouraged by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or visitinghttp://www.landforgood.org
Tara Kelly is Executive Director of Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL). RAFFL is one of several organizations collaborating together on the Vermont New Farmer Project. For more info check out https://www.uvm.edu/newfarmer/
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.