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Back to the land in Vermont … again? Some see strong signs

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2011-07-26

Monty Fischer, the energetic director of the nonprofit Center for an Agricultural Economy, is responsible for helping to spur local food initiatives in Hardwick.

The center is an educational organization for budding entrepreneurs, farmers, public officials, scientists and restaurateurs who are curious about the Hardwick area’s high-profile agricultural boom, thanks to the launch of startups like Claire’s Restaurant, Pete’s Greens and Jasper Hill Farm that have put the small Northeast Kingdom town on the national foodie map.

Lately, Fischer has seen more “walk-ins” at the center’s airy headquarters fronting South Main Street. Many of the center’s visitors are young people who are attracted to the farming life, and they have one question on their minds: Where can they buy reasonably priced land to grow vegetables or raise livestock?

“It happens all the time,” he says. “Young people come to us saying, ‘We are excited about farming, but how do we break into this? We really need help. How can we find available land?’”

Despite the national economic slowdown, top-quality farmland is becoming more expensive in Vermont. New demand for small-scale farmland, plus continued interest in rural tracts as an investment, and a desire by some existing dairy farmers to expand their holdings, has helped steady or increase farmland prices throughout the state, according to agricultural officials.

In some locations, notably locales with rich soils near population centers, and parts of Franklin County, where dairying is still king, land prices have actually spiked.

In Franklin County, particularly near St. Albans, Swanton and Enosburg, farmers are snapping up plots of flat tillable land to grow more of their own grain to combat the rise in prices of imported feed from the Midwest, where corn and soybeans are being diverted for ethanol and biodiesel.

Officials say it’s nearly impossible to get started from scratch in dairying because of the current price of land but also because of the high cost of fuel, fertilizer and equipment.

“To get into dairying, either commodity or organic, is really tough,” confirms Al Karnatz, a regional director of the Vermont Land Trust, the statewide nonprofit organization that buys development rights to help preserve and lower the cost of Vermont farmland.

“We know all the struggles out there, and the few successes, but the reality is that not many people are saying, ‘I want to start a 100-cow dairy farm.’”

But many are saying they still would like a few dozen or maybe 100 acres to grow vegetables or to put in an orchard, berry patches or a vineyard; or maybe to start an  apiary or to raise goats — so they can run their own CSA or sell their products to restaurants that can’t seem to put enough “Vermont-made” products on their menus.

“This is real, and it’s explosive,” says former state Agriculture Secretary Roger Allbee of the interest in local foods. “Today’s consumers are more concerned about where their food came from; they are concerned about food safety and the environment; and they like to connect with the person who grew their food.”

Data from the state Agency of Agriculture suggests Vermonters are especially interested in home-grown products.

The agency says studies show the state is tops in the nation in terms of the number of farmers’ markets and CSAs per capita. It reports that Vermonters spend an average of $36.77 per year at farm stands, farmers’ markets and CSAs, which also is highest in the country.

The state has dozens of local food hubs and networks: from the 300-acre Intervale Center that opened 23 years ago in Burlington, to the Rutland County Farmers’ Market, now year-around with winter sales in the formerly abandoned Strand Movie Theatre in the downtown.

Some of the groundwork for this “agricultural renaissance,” as Allbee calls it, was laid years ago by the Legislature and by governors who were concerned about the loss of rich farmland to development. The loss of prime agricultural land, of course, remains a concern, and several organizations, both public and private, are working to combat the trend.

The state’s major land-use control law, Act 250, which was enacted 40 years ago during the administration of Gov. Deane Davis, has provisions specifically designed to protect important agricultural land. In the 1970s, the Legislature enacted the state’s current use program, which limits property taxes for farmers. Acreage is assessed at its “current-use” value, rather than at its development-potential value.

Two organizations, the non-profit Vermont Land Trust, and the state’s quasi-public Housing and Conservation Trust Board, work in various ways to conserve farmland, one of them being to purchase development rights from farmers so their acreage will be saved for farming.

Officials say the price of farmland runs anywhere from $1,000 an acre to $3,500 or more. Land appears to be most expensive in the dairying counties of Franklin, Addison and Rutland, and in Chittenden County, because of its population density.

While some of the best agricultural land is found in those areas, soil maps show isolated patches of excellent farmland throughout, especially near rivers, where over the geologic ages silt has been deposited. Vermont’s lands tend to be rocky and non-acidic, thanks to calcium deposits from ancient seas.

Some of the best land in the state runs the length of the Connecticut River from northern Vermont south into Windham County, which Albee has called Vermont’s “most agriculturally diversified county.”

One person helping promote that diversification is Hans Estrin, a former high school biology teacher, who left his job at Putney School two years ago to co-found the Windham Farm and Food Network. He manages orders over the Internet, and, using a borrowed truck, delivers farm goods from farms to some 35 schools, hospitals, co-ops and other institutions in the area.

He says, new farmers “are cropping up” in the area, but that many, instead of buying land, are going the more affordable rout: they are renting or leasing plots of larger farm holdings. In fact, Estrin has plans to serve as an informal matchmaker, connecting landowners with those who don’t have the money to buy.

At Vermont Technical College, agriculture professor Chris Dutton says he’s telling his students they must be patient before buying land, and that a good strategy might be to find a good-paying management job in the agriculture industry, a job that does not now involve plowing fields, and “to store away a nest egg,” so they can later buy farmland if that remains their goal.

“With conserved (development rights sold) we tell students they will have to pay $1,000 to $2,000 an acre, but even that’s not always true.…I have seen it go for much higher,” he said.

And that’s because “people with significantly more capital can buy the land, look at it, and enjoy the view” without the hardship of farming. Dutton said the good news is that such buyers, with no intention of farming, soon may want to rent some of their property.

“They eventually find they have financial needs, too, and in some cases they rent it pretty cheaply…maybe $100 an acre.”