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67 Merchants Row
Rutland, VT, 05701
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Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL) promotes local food knowledge, production and market opportunities for farmers and community members throughout our region.

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Farm Viability in Vermont

Phil Gurley

By Lindsay Arbuckle

Farmer and consultant Richard Wiswall mentors Scott Courcelle as part of the Vermont Farm Viability program.

Farmer and consultant Richard Wiswall mentors Scott Courcelle as part of the Vermont Farm Viability program.

You won’t meet too many farmers with business degrees. Yet, besides managing the fields or raising the animals, much of the work in farming is that which an entrepreneur in any field must take on: marketing, business planning, bookkeeping, budgeting, and more.

It can be overwhelming for beginning farmers, since many of us got into farming because we love working outdoors and connecting with the earth, not because we wanted to make Excel spreadsheets. But the reality is that a farm is a business, and it’s not easy to create a profitable farm without recognizing it as such.

Luckily for farmers in our state, the Vermont Farm Viability Program exists. Farm Viability started in 2003 and is a program of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. Through Farm Viability, farmers work one-on-one with consultants to evaluate their farm business and create a business plan.

Our farm, Alchemy Gardens, was accepted into the program last fall. There are plenty of excellent agricultural service providers in Vermont, but we knew immediately that we wanted to work with Richard Wiswall. Richard, with his wife Sally Colman, is the owner of Cate Farm in East Montpelier and author ofThe Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook. Richard wrote his book to help farmers become financially profitable, and the pages are chock full of wisdom and Richard’s own hard-learned lessons, so that we each don’t have to reinvent the wheel. To starry-eyed young farmers across the country, he is a bit of a celebrity—in person, he is modest and friendly.

From August through April, Richard came to meet with us eight times, for at least three hours per visit. His son Flint came too, providing plenty of useful advice himself, having worked on Cate Farm throughout his youth and into his twenties. They walked our fields with us, and sat at our kitchen table with us as we crunched numbers, developed budgets, and took on SWOT analyses, cash flow projections, income statements, marketing plans, and more.

Farmers use many tools, but the most important one is free and available to all: human creativity. Richard is living proof that creativity, combined with hard work and perseverance, can make your farm profitable. When we would describe our challenges, Richard, who is a sincere listener, would immediately pull creativity out of his toolbox, thinking of various “what if” scenarios. Many road blocks to our success as a farm have become obsolete through our work with Richard.

It’s a challenge to describe just how grateful we are for the help we got from Richard and Farm Viability. We now have a forty page business plan, and knowledge of balance sheets, implementation plans, and all sorts of analyses to evaluate our business. The fee to participate in Farm Viability is just $75, yet we gained a lifetime’s worth of priceless advice. Without a doubt, the Farm Viability program is helping our farm evolve and become financially profitable.

More than anything, Richard’s encouragement has made all the difference. In our first meeting, he said his objective as our mentor was for us to be happy and prosperous farmers. As a beginning farmer, just having someone sit at your kitchen table and encourage you can make all the difference in the world. Richard firmly believes that we can make a living as farmers, and we keep this in the back of our minds when we get bogged down with the tougher parts of the job.

Last week was a rough one, with oppressive heat, abundant weeds, and general physical exhaustion. Many of our friends who grow vegetables also describe this phenomenon setting in around the end of July. This week’s cooler temperatures combined with two days of much needed rest, have allowed me to re-focus on the positive things happening on our farm: harvests are now flush with colorful veggies, sales are good, and we’re developing better relationships with our customers all the time.

There’s no magic wand when it comes to making a living as farmers, but we are figuring it out, day by day. A family member asked me if a 9-to-5 job is starting to seem like a better option. Without hesitation, I answered no. This is risky business, but through our work with Richard, we have more skills and knowledge to farm smarter, not harder. In this wild world we live in, I’d rather be doing this than anything. Thank you, Wiz.

Lindsay Arbuckle & Scott Courcelle own Alchemy Gardens, a farm business growing vegetables and herbs in West Rutland. More info at AlchemyGardensVT.com

Originally published in the Rutland Herald.