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A matter of process

Farmer seeks answers about Land Trust’s selection, criteria for sale of Cassidy Farm

DUMMERSTON—On July 12, when the Vermont Land Trust named one winning group of farmers to reinvigorate the Cassidy Farm, 11 other applicants went away empty-handed.

One of them, Newfane resident Ed McGrath, knowing that he had met the basic required criteria, and standing by with a barnful of equipment he had hoped to put to work, wanted to find out where his proposal to purchase the 169-acre farm had fallen short.

To find out, McGrath — head of plant maintenance at Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School, and a property manager — contacted the person who had made the final decision: Jon Ramsey, director of the VLT’s Farmland Access Program.

To McGrath’s surprise, Ramsey told him that no information would be forthcoming.

“I asked him why [I wasn’t chosen],” McGrath said. ”He said there was no one reason why. He didn’t have a reason other than they picked who they picked.”

McGrath’s concern grew when he contacted all 10 of his references and discovered that none had been contacted by the VLT.

Ramsey confirmed that applicants get neither an explanation for their rejection nor an analysis of their proposal from Vermont Land Trust.

Once he has graded the proposals, he said, he designates a small number of them as top-ranked, then shares only those with colleagues for their input. He makes the final decision.

The VLT offers no accounting for how any of the proposals are judged, and, according to Ramsey, “we don’t go into details about each proposal, how they are ranked, higher or lower.”

McGrath takes exception to this policy.

”I think if it involves government financing, they’d have to tell me what I did wrong, or why they didn’t call my references, or why they skipped over someone with 25 years of experience.”

Vermont Land Trust projects include funding from various state and federal agencies, including the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.

Federal and state tax dollars have not yet been used for this project.

The selection process

According to the RFP document, proposals would be evaluated on several criteria:

• the willingness of the buyer to meet the VLT’s asking price of $375,000 — the appraised agricultural value of the property — and the ability to pay that price;

• the compatibility of the proposed farm enterprise with the “size, soils, and configuration of the farm” and its long-term economic viability; and

• “demonstrated farming experience and training that relates to the proposed farm operation.”

The VLT stated that preference would be given to “proposals where food or fiber for human use is produced.”

According to Joan Weir, Vermont Land Trust’s southeast regional director, the goal has been to find the best match between farmer and land.

From the VLT’s point of view, the selection processes are essentially a private affair, and the Trust isn’t obligated to reveal how its officials make their choices.

Weir pointed out that “tax dollars don’t go directly to the farmer.” The seller is the recipient of the government money, so the farmer selection process is unencumbered by federal regulations concerning transparency and accountability that sometimes accompany federal grants, she said.

Siobhan Smith, Vermont Land Trust’s vice president for land conservation, maintains that the process “is less about who we don’t pick but about who we do pick.” She said that ”we have a grid, and we rank and mark each [proposal] according to the criteria, but we don’t make that public.”

Nor does the VLT release the names of any of the unsuccessful applicants. Ramsey said that in part this policy emerged because sometimes people will ask for confidentiality so as to not put their current jobs in jeopardy.

“It’s not easy, and we’re trying to be thoughtful about it,” he added.

Smith said that putting that information out to any applicant who requests it would subject the process and the other applicants’ proposals to more scrutiny than would be appropriate.

However, the land trust has “provided feedback when we thought we had constructive feedback to offer,” he said.

“We’re open to suggestions,” Smith added. “We’re open to new ideas about how to do this.”

Follow the money

The confidentiality policy has thus far kept McGrath from speaking with any of the other unsuccessful applicants to compare notes.

But he did contact the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which the Land Trust hopes will fund the project.

McGrath said an OIG staffer told him that the agency would red-flag the request for funding for closer inspection if and when it is received by the Northeast regional USDA office.

The USDA money will eventually find its way to the Land Trust through the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.

VHCB Agricultural Director Nancy Everhart confirmed that McGrath contacted her, and said that he has legitimate questions.

“I think improvements could be made in how [the VLT is] characterizing what the selection criteria are,” she said. She reiterated the Trust’s main goal: “To help farmers access land who wouldn’t be able to do so without help.”

She described a tension between the ideal of helping young farmers and their reality of needing to know if they can afford it.

And while Land Trust writings often refer to encouraging young farmers, Everhart says she thinks that they are not excluding older farmers, such as McGrath, who is 49. She said that it would be a good idea to organize the selection process more formally to make it more accountable, and that she has made this suggestion to the Land Trust in the past.

When asked if unsuccessful applicants should be entitled to information on their bid, she responded, “Absolutely. It would be great for people to get the feedback.”

Shining light on the process

The property, now called the Bunker Farm, will be operated by Bunker Farm LLC, a corporation whose principals are Noah Hoskins, sisters Helen and Jen O’Donnell, and Mike Euphrat, the young farmers who submitted the top proposal.

The land was sold on July 30 for $854,000 to the VLT, which funded the purchase with bridge financing.

According to the VLT’s request for proposals, the selected buyer will enter into an interim lease and a purchase and sale agreement until the closing, allowing use of the land during the 2013 cropping season and occupancy of the house.

While that happens, the Land Trust will attempt to raise $575,000 to conserve the farm. A local campaign will separately seek to raise another $110,000.

The VLT will add a conservation easement to the property, a legal restriction that will preserve the tract from development in perpetuity, making it more affordable for future generations of farmers.

The maneuvers effectively reduced Bunker Farm LLC’s cost of the property by $479,000.

If all goes as planned, the VLT will transfer the ownership of the property in late fall or early winter.

McGrath emphasized he is not trying to scuttle the Cassidy Farm deal.

“I don’t have anything against those kids, and I don’t want to take anything from them,” he said.

But McGrath said that a selection process that is shielded from scrutiny cannot help but be tainted with suspicions of possible biases such as nepotism, favoritism, or worse on the part of the decision maker.

Since McGrath started voicing his objections, Land Trust officials, including Weir and Ramsey, have agreed to talk to him about his concerns.

McGrath said that he will be satisfied only when the selection process is changed to be more accountable and transparent for future applicants.

“I just want to know that the process is fair and that everyone who applies has an equal chance,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #219 (Wednesday, September 4, 2013).

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