This is the final installment of a 3-part series on how young farmers acquire land in Vermont.
“The key was that we didn’t know what we didn’t know.”
In describing their farm journey, Jaska Bradeen, 29, and Katie Sullivan, 30, of Sheep and Pickle Farm in Brookfield, return again and again to this problem, one that they and many other beginning farmers like them have faced when first looking for land: Much of what they had to learn about farming and business planning in order to achieve success was impossible to foresee until they actually started farming. In the case of Katie and Jaska, this challenge—learning what it really means to farm—was compounded by the fact that from the very beginning, they have been farming on other people’s land.
Katie was born in a cabin and, once she decided to return to a rural lifestyle, she read everything she could find about raising and slaughtering chickens. Her partner, Jaska, grew up with an avid gardener of a mother and by the 6th grade already knew that homesteading was in her future. In 2008, just out of college, and with stars in their eyes and a dream of homesteading in their hearts, she and Jaska set out on their farm journey—a path that has been marked by as many ups and downs as the average rocky field in Vermont.
As Katie and Jaska began their land hunt, buying land was out of the question because of a lack of capital. As for leasing land (another common option for young farmers), they didn’t have a firm enough grasp on their farm plans to pursue such a formal arrangement. Nevertheless, they perused the several land-linking services that exist in Vermont—websites and organizations such as the Vermont Land Trust, Vermont Land Link, Land for Good, and the Land Access Program of UVM Extension. These programs help connect landowners and retiring farmers with young people searching for land to farm. (More on those later.) Katie and Jaska recall searching through the listings offered by these services, but say they didn’t find a whole lot. As Jaska explains, “I don’t think we really knew what we were looking for.” Katie continues, “We just needed a place to live and we needed land to use, and that was the sum total of the thought.”
After initially rejecting several lease opportunities (because, according to Katie, the “potential land lenders hadn’t really thought about what it would be like to have someone else farming on their land”), they found a listing, based in Randolph, “that sounded amazing.” Katie remembers that the landowners “seemed like the first people who had actually considered the possibility that dirt would be turned over and chickens would be pooping.”
Katie and Jaska signed on with the Randolph couple in 2009. The landowners, who were also the landlords of the house that Katie and Jaska rented next door, were expecting to make money from having their land farmed. Within the year, however, Katie and Jaska had failed at their first farming attempt. As Jaska explains, “They [the landowners] were going to get half the profits, after expenses. The problem was that we weren’t making any profits. Katie and I were trying desperately to keep up with the farming, which wasn’t remunerative.” Katie adds, “We were trying to pay our rent solely from my part-time, off-farm job. By the end of the 9 months, the reason that we left was because we couldn’t pay our rent.”
This sobering experience led Katie and Jaska to fill in the gaps of ”what they didn’t know they didn’t know.” “We made a common mistake among young farmers, which was that we figured if we knew how to grow it, we’d be able to make money off of it. And those are two very different things. Plenty of people can grow a beet and not a lot of people can make money off some beets.”
The next two years found Katie and Jaska farming on land owned by a couple in Berlin. This time, they put the agreement on paper. And their second farm experience turned out to be, “if not necessarily positive, at least a lot more clear. We just weren’t getting out of it what we wanted.” In this case, ”what they didn’t know they didn’t know” was that they needed more than two acres, and that landowners can be sensitive to the visceral realities of slaughtering chickens.
Now Katie and Jaska are in Brookfield, thanks to a harmonious land-use agreement with an older couple in the neighborhood, and they’ve formally launched their business, Sheep and Pickle Farm. Katie has diverted her interest in chickens to a sheep business, demonstrating just how much she has learned from farming on other people’s land. “I will always pasture my sheep on land belonging to others. Fortunately, sheep in a lot of ways are pretty low impact, unlike a giant chicken slaughtering operation. Sheep are as compatible as any animals can be with the lifestyles of other people, and people like to see them, so I’m going to have my sheep on other people’s land, realistically, until we can buy 100 acres.”
Ben Waterman, who has a farm of his own in Johnson, has heard stories just like Katie and Jaska’s, many times over. In 2008, the same year that Katie and Jaska set out on their land search odyssey, Ben joined the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture. At the center, he oversees the Land Access Program, which he describes as a continuation of Land Link Vermont, a program that was started in 2003. “When I came on board in 2008, we did not intend for this [the Land Access Program] to be a separate program from other new farmer programs, but due to the high demand for the service from farmers seeking land, we kept the Land Access Program distinct, and I devoted a lot of focus to assisting farmers and landowners with farm tenure.”
When Katie and Jaska first started their land search, they lacked the resources to buy and didn’t know enough to lease. Ben recognizes the commonality of their situation. “Survey after survey that we and others have conducted over the last 5 to ten years have new farmers reporting the lack of access to quality land as a primary barrier. The reason for this is that there is simply less farmland to choose from every year, and it is growing more expensive. Farmers are pinched out of the real estate market, because prices are set not by agricultural use potential, but by housing and other types of development.” In part because of these high land prices, and in part because older farmers often sell their land to developers to fund their retirements, Ben and others see the need for third-party programs like the Land Access Program. These programs connect young people with land in ways that address some of the affordability issues and simultaneously preserve some of Vermont’s farm land and agricultural legacy.
But Ben says that third-party land partnership services—the Land Trust, Vermont Land Link, Land for Good, and the Land Access Program—go well beyond connecting young farmers and landowners. “What makes our programming unique is the human support that comes with it. Lease or purchase templates are a great starting point, but we and our partner organizations have specialists available to help folks understand how the options apply to their particular situation. This depth of personalized land and infrastructure-focused technical assistance is tough to find outside of our network.”
Ben cites the progress that has been made since 2008: “We do not have hard data, but I can say with all of our partner organizations there are probably on average five farm arrangements per year that are forged via land access programs.” Despite this relative success, some of the resource deprivation issues that plague young farmers may also be looming on the horizon for their land access services. “For the past three years our service has been grant funded through the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which is on the chopping block. It expires next year. So, unfortunately, while demand for this programming remains strong, we’ll need to deal with the reality of limited grant resources.”
As Ben and others investigate models to ensure and expand the funding of land-access programs, they are continually working to develop partnerships between landowners and young farmers. Ben echoes the words of Katie and Jaska when he describes why these relationships sometimes fail: “Lack of clearly communicated expectations is the number one reason why a farm-ttenure arrangement does not come to fruition. The farmer thinks one thing, the landowner thinks another, communication doesn’t happen until there is a problem, and by that time it is too late. But every lease or other farming arrangement from the outset can lay out a good process for communication and conflict resolution.”
Fortunately, Ben says it is much more common for farmer-landowner partnerships to be successful. His advice, if a farmer is on someone else’s land, is that “it is all about communication, communication, communication.” In some ways, exterior standards can be the key to bringing the language of communication to a level that all parties can relate to. To reassure landowners, “farmers can get to know Vermont’s Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAPs), which is the gold standard for environmental stewardship,” Ben says. On the other side of the table, landowners have resources at their disposal that will prepare them to have someone farming on their land. “Land for Good, in partnership with more than 20 other organizations across New England, recently published two comprehensive guides for private and institutional landowners on leasing land to farmers. Every farmer talking with landowners should hand them a copy of this guide or send them the internet link.”
In the end, Ben sees all too clearly the reality surrounding much of the farmland in Vermont: “While non-farming landowners represent a significant potential source of land for new farmers, the majority of the farm and land base is still owned by family farms. Many are going out of business and retiring. Every time a farm is listed on the open real estate market and bought by a non-farmer, there is an enormous gap in knowledge and skills built over many generations, and land base that is potentially ripped open. Land seekers, on the other hand, can fill the gap. In fact, if there are no successors from within the farm family, land seekers are some of the only people I know of who can fill the gap.”
For the landowners in Brookfield where Sheep and Pickle Farm is based, Katie and Jaska are filling just such a knowledge gap. They may have found their land without the help of a land-access program, but the success of the partnership is what matters, something that Ben aptly describes. “Our programs put faith in people as responsible, fair, and able to adapt to challenging situations as they arise. We are not here to paint a rosy, romantic picture of farming as all good and easy. But good people with good information make good decisions.”