Vermont Young Farmers Coalition

Growing Community and Policy in Vermont

photo courtesy of VYFC
Photo courtesy of VYFC

Written By

Kate Spring

Written on

August 16 , 2017

In late May, in the midst of yet another torrential downpour, a strong gust punched across our hillside farm and lifted our moveable hoop house from the ground. It ripped out the cucumber seedlings we’d just set in and landed diagonal in the field, cutting across four beds of lettuce mix and freshly transplanted zucchini.

My husband and I allowed ourselves a few moments of utter defeat, and then set to work. By the evening, the hoop house was back in place, doubly anchored, with extra cucumber transplants rooting in. If nothing else, farming teaches you how to adapt, respond, and continue moving forward.

We’re not alone in our struggles and accomplishments. Across Vermont, and across the country, young farmers are taking on the challenges of a shifting agricultural landscape—one that deals an increasingly unpredictable climate, requires an immense array of knowledge from botany to bookkeeping, and promises fresh air, but not employer-sponsored health care. In 2009, the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) was created to address the specific challenges and needs of young farmers. Their mission statement reads: “NYFC represents, mobilizes, and engages young farmers to ensure their success.”

Our state chapter, the Vermont Young Farmers Coalition (VYFC), engages both farm owners and employees who are putting down roots here. VYFC supports the national organization in their mission and projects, and engages with young farmers across Vermont, connecting them with fellow farmers and organizations like the Intervale Center, NOFA-VT, The Vermont Land Trust, the Farm Service Agency, and Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL), all of which offer different resources young farmers may need.

While this match-making is an important part of their work, the farmers behind VYFC see themselves first and foremost as community builders and policy advocates. In June, I spoke with Taylor Hutchinson, co-owner of Footprint Farm, and Megan Browning, harvest manager at Burnt Rock Farm. The two serve on the VYFC leadership team and act as liaisons to the national organization.

“What we’ve identified the most is this sense of isolation and sometimes hopelessness in young farmers,” Taylor said, “especially people who’ve been farming two or three years and are starting to burn out. We’re seeing that there’s a lot of help with people to get into farming, but there’s not as much help to keep people in farming after the first two years.”

VYFC organizes events to bring farmers together: monthly on-farm potlucks across the state; farmer yoga, with poses geared toward farmers (think shoulder-relaxing poses after a day spent hunched over seeding in the greenhouse); and co-hosted events such as the young farmer mixer at the NOFA-VT winter conference, and the mud-season meet-up with RAFFL in Randolph. These events encourage a holistic view of farming that includes sharing technical resources, supporting individual health, and building a social network for farmers to tap into when they need help or simply need to get off the farm for some relaxation and fun.

“What’s helped most is having other young farmers around you to ask for advice or just commiserate with, so these social events have really been key,” Taylor said.

The other side of VYFC is policy work. “The more I understand about how legislation affects our farm business, the more I feel like we do need to have politicians know that we’re out here,” Taylor said. “We need to advocate for small farms and show them we’re not hobbyists, but that we’re trying to run actual businesses.” So they’re reaching out and starting conversations. In May, VYFC hosted VT Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts on Footprint Farm; in June, they met with Governor Scott at the statehouse.

“In Vermont what they’re talking a lot about is that we’re losing young Vermonters and we need a way to keep them here,” Taylor told me. “We need a way to attract young people because our workforce is aging. So we’re trying to put a face to the folks who could keep agriculture going.”
According to the 2012 agricultural census, there are 850 dairy farms in Vermont that contribute $2.2 billion in economic activity every year, about $3 million in circulating cash every day. While there are 800 vegetable farms, the value of all vegetable and fruit crops sold was $34.8 million per year. This disparity leads to dairy playing a larger role in policy making, but even though small-scale crop farmers aren’t monetarily competing with big dairy right now, VYFC is vying for a seat at the table.

“We’re trying to show [policymakers] there’s a new wave, a revival of old agricultural methods, that could be the next face of the ‘Vermont Brand’,” Taylor said.

In their meeting with Secretary Tebbetts, a handful of farm owners and employees shared the biggest barriers they face. The list included affordable health care, access to land and capital, student loan debt, and the viability of a farming career without having to become a farm owner. This last point is particularly important for Megan, who sees the path of farm worker to farm owner as currently the only real option when it comes to having a long-term career in farming.

“The more I’ve farmed, the more I’ve realized that it’s not my goal to own my own farm,” she said. “I really appreciate going home at the end of the day, and not holding the weight of a whole farm on my shoulders.” That also gives her more time to be involved in groups like VYFC. “What I want politicians to know,” Megan said, “is that young farmers are the future of agriculture in the U.S. So if we want to see agriculture continue to thrive, then there’s a need to create conditions that make more young people want to farm, and that allow young people to farm.”

Addressing student loan debt is one of those conditions. Agriculture is already a hard industry to turn a profit in, and with daunting debt, many college graduates may be priced out of considering a career in farming. NYFC and VYFC have been active in supporting The Young Farmers Success Act, a federal bill co-sponsored by Vermont Congressman Peter Welch, that would add farming to the list of public service jobs eligible for loan forgiveness. Another priority for VYFC is access to affordable health care. Most farming jobs lack the benefits of health care, paid vacation, and a retirement account.

“It’s really important on the state level to help farmers improve their profitability so they can support more jobs for young people,” Megan said. “Farm owners obviously have a huge stake in this, but also anyone else who cares about farming, and frankly anyone who eats food, should have an interest in young farmers, because young farmers are the people who are going to take over all this land over the next 20 years.”

For his part, Secretary Tebbetts was thrilled to meet with VYFC. “[He] wants to drive out to farms and hear stories from farmers,” Taylor said. Anson is interested in bringing the different parts of agriculture together and offered to be a bridge between young conventional dairy farmers and VYFC, which is comprised mainly of organic vegetable and small-scale livestock farmers. Their meeting with the Governor was similarly positive, but brief.

No matter if it’s a half hour or an afternoon farm visit, VYFC understands the importance of connections, community, and cultivating relationships with policy makers. These relationships stand to support farmers through all their needs, whether it’s commiserating over a flying hoop house or helping them find funding resources. Despite all the challenges, Taylor and Megan agree that, with its myriad of farm-based organizations and support of local food, Vermont is a great place to be a farmer.

“For me, [VYFC and NYFC] has been a way to be part of a group,” Taylor said. “It’s like having co-workers all over the country…. It’s inspired me to get it going stronger in Vermont and share that community with more people.”

About the Author

 Katie Spring

Kate Spring

Kate Spring is co-owner of Good Heart Farmstead in Worcester, a CSA farm with a mission to make local food more accessible. She finds time to write in between pulling weeds and sowing seeds. Follow the farm on Instagram: @goodheartfarmstead.

Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest. Optional login below.

What we do

Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape ties into larger questions of sustainability and the future of our food supply.