How to Get Grounded
Young farmers in Vermont surmount the high cost of land with support from family, friends, and investors
Written onAugust 19 , 2013
On a road in Cabot, not far from the land that Laura Dale and Cyrus Pond bought this past March, you can look out to the west at a horizon dominated by the undulating spine of the Green Mountains. For many young farmers in Vermont, the cost of land can seem as daunting and insurmountable as the largest of those mountains in the dead of winter. If becoming a landowner is like traversing a high peak, then finding the right land is akin to taking the first step toward the base of that peak. And finding the money to actually buy that land can be the real challenge, the final ascent.
Here are the stories of three groups of farmers and how they found and bought land in Vermont. These farmers are all in their 20s and 30s, with deep experience living off the land and growing food, but not a lot of monetary wealth to show for it. As they looked for land, they experienced common feelings: a frustration with banks, a sense that maybe they should look for land in another state, and eventually, gratitude for the support of family, friends, and private investors. For other young farmers in Vermont, these stories can shed light on how to find and purchase farmland, how to get to the top of that mountain.
When Laura and Cyrus found a posting on Craigslist for the land that is now their Backroads Farm, they had known each other for just four months and it was the first property they had looked at together. For a variety of reasons, the land just felt right to the two Vermont natives. For Cyrus, who had been living nearby on leased land while getting his hardwood flooring business off the ground, there was a big incentive to buy in an area where he already had feelings of connection within the local community.
“It’s the people here—you can’t re-create the energy that the people have in Vermont,” Cyrus says. “It’s what the people are trying to do, their intentions, their attitudes, their humor; it’s about having good neighbors and sharing farm implements. It’s just the whole package, its special.”
Laura, for her part, had been actively looking for land in northern Vermont for several years, partly with the seasoned insight of her parents. As she explains, “My parents were homesteaders, they built their own house, they built up the land. My mom has this deep understanding of what it takes to do this and has a very realistic outlook on the compatibility of land. She came up [to see the property] and said, ‘How soon can you close? This is it.’”
For the past several years, Laura had been working on farms in Vermont. But as for most young farmers, the low wages and seasonality of the work did not leave her with adequate resources to purchase land. Cyrus, in the process of launching his business, was also in no position to afford the $139,000 price tag of the land they now own. Their first attempt at securing a loan left them with common feelings of frustration. “We went to the bank,” explains Cyrus, “and we both qualified for a loan, no problem, but I only had this year’s tax returns [and the returns from another state]. But they said, ‘Sorry you can’t use the returns from another state.’” Says Laura: “And I had only just started making enough money to qualify for the loan, since I’d been farming and not making any money.” “So,” Cyrus continues, “we thought, ‘What are we going to do? There’s this awesome property and we can’t afford it.’”
In the end, Laura’s family loaned her and Cyrus the money to buy the land, with a two-percent interest rate and a reasonable repayment plan over a number of years. At that interest rate, Laura’s family is making more money than if they’d put their money in a bank, and Laura and Cyrus are paying less than if they’d taken out a bank loan. Laura strongly recommends this kind of private financing: “It works out for both people. It’s an investment for the parents—they’re making money. And they’re enabling a young farmer. Avoiding the bank seems to be the best way to go.”
Dropping down out of the hills of Cabot, you’ll most likely find yourself on Route 2, following the Winooski River as it winds through valleys and towns. One year ago, if you had been paying attention, you might have noticed a new sign alongside that of the Onion River Campground: the Onion River Farm stand. What you probably didn’t know when you stopped at the farm stand was that the land was purchased a year and a half ago by a limited liability corporation (LLC) called El No Namo. It was formed by Jaqueline Rieke and Josie Green of Nutty Steph’s Chocolaterie in Middlesex (Jaqueline being the owner of Nutty Steph’s and Josie being the head chocolate maker).
In 2006, when Josie became frustrated with mounting debt and disgusted with dissecting lab rats, she abandoned her neuroscience degree and moved to Vermont, where she lived in a teepee and had a garden for the first time. As she moved around, from Morrisville to Hyde Park to Cabot, she worked with her friends to grow food and took part in the birth of Woodbelly Pizza and Provender Farm, all the while keeping an eye out for land of her own and strengthening her own ideas and vision. When she started working at Nutty Steph’s Chocolaterie three years ago, the desire to find a place to put down solid roots had grown and her goals had begun to solidify: “My plan was to really set things up the way I wanted to and have a cooperative situation,” she says, “a cooperative house or just work on land with people and share resources. I’m passionate about food preservation and really want to spread that knowledge to anyone who wants it.”
Despite her thorough search, though, the hope of finding land began to fade. Land prices just seemed too high, and Josie was preparing to give up. “I was thinking: I’ve been trying to do this thing in Vermont for four or five years. I’ve moved around from land to land to land—always someone else’s land—and I was just really getting tired of it. I was thinking I might leave and move to New York.”
In the midst of her low, Josie drove by the Onion River Campground with Jaqueline one day and remembered that the land and the campground business had recently been put up for sale. She suggested they stop and look at it. “So we walked around, saw the greenhouse, just kind of got really excited about it, and she [Jaqueline] just got it in her head to buy it.” Tapping into all the connections she had developed in establishing her thriving chocolate business, Jaqueline found a private investor, an individual who agreed to loan them the money to buy the land. They formed the LLC together and bought it. Now a business partner at Nutty Steph’s, Josie oversees the collaborative management of the Onion River Farm stand, where she and several other young people are working on honing their farming and marketing strategies in order to pay back their loan as soon as possible.
“It’s just so healthy for me to have land,” Josie says. “This is a way that I found that’s really grounding for me: working in the dirt, working with food. It’s a spiritually fulfilling quest for me. So having this, and having decision-making power, is just really amazing for me.”
Continuing west once more along the Green Mountains’ long ridge line, and up into the hills around Worcester, you’ll find Good Heart Farmstead and the home of Katie Spring and Edge Fuentes. Next to Katie and Edge’s yurt, there’s a small, picturesque sheep flock grazing alongside an immaculate garden bed, with the Worcester Mountain Range spread out like the perfect backdrop on the opposite side of the valley. Katie and Edge had bought their 15 acres for $85,500 one year prior to my visit, in the spring of 2012. Much like Josie’s, their land search had left them nearly burnt out and on the verge of abandoning their hope of living off the land in Vermont.
“In the summer of 2011 we were farming on someone else’s land,” says Katie. “We got really frustrated with our land search and we got frustrated with our farming situation—we got frustrated with a lot of things about our living situation and were feeling like, ‘Where are we going to go?’ We decided we were going to move back to Alaska and start a pizza business. We were pretty close to doing it all in and buying tickets.”
As they considered their options, though, Katie and Edge decided to stay in Vermont. After a winter of intensive thinking and planning, they honed their mission, namely to provide good local food to their community, especially low-income families. They also made a conscious effort each week to take an active step in the land search process. As they began to see the different options, a checklist formed in their heads of all the details that would help inform their decision. “It was all those little things that we started learning as we were seeing different places,” Edge says. “Does the field flood? Can we feed gravity through our whole fields to our crops? Are the neighbors cool? Is the road driveable? So when we had all those boxes to check, we could come up with a way to value it. If it had a beautiful view, we could add a little bit more; if it had bad access, we could take some value off of it.”
In the end, just like Laura and Cyrus, Katie and Edge found their land through a Craigslist posting and received a private loan from their family with a two-percent interest rate and a 15-year repayment plan. “It [closing on the land] was really exciting,” Katie says. “We had each asked our parents for $55,000, so that’s what we knew we were working with.” The land had originally been listed at a price that would have completely depleted the loan, so Katie and Edge negotiated a lower price knowing they would need some of their loan for startup capital. Says Edge: “We were thinking, Okay, what’s it going to cost to put power to the place? and When do we want to live there? and What are the costs of needing to live there?”
Katie and Edge have advice for young farmers looking for land to buy. “At each place you go to,” Katie says, “it’s so important to spend a lot of time there, just sitting there, getting a feeling for not only what it would be like as a farm, but as your home too, because you’re probably going to want to live there. If we didn’t have a farm and for some reason we both thought we’d go get off-farm jobs, I would still just love living here, either way.”
Edge adds, “I think it’s most important to understand what it is that you want and what’s going to work for you, so then you can in some way ask for it, whether you’re asking for money or asking for an arrangement. If you don’t have the understanding of what you’re going to do and what you really want and what your vision is, then you won’t ever be able to communicate it.”