Farmers launch effort to purchase 169-acre tract

Bunker Farm will need to raise $110,00 for farm, education center

DUMMERSTON — A 169-acre plot formerly owned by Dummerston residents Larry and Lynn Cassidy will become the site for Bunker Farm, LLC, through a proposal selected by Vermont Land Trust's Farmland Access program.

The property, located on Bunker Road and now owned by the Vermont Land Trust, will be operated by Noah Hoskins, sisters Helen and Jen O'Donnell, and Mike Euphrat, all local residents with farming experience.

According to Joan Weir, VLT southeastern region director, the four will operate the farm under a lease until they can purchase the property in March 2014, pending fundraising on the part of the Vermont Land Trust over the next nine months.

Weir said the campaign will need to raise upwards of $110,000.

The farm was bought from the Cassidy family at market value, and will be sold to the four farmers for a more affordable price, Weir said. She added that the property will be placed under a conservation easement, which will ensure that it can only be used for farming, forestry, recreation, or education. Subdivision or other development will be forbidden regardless of ownership.

Funds raised will cover the remaining costs of conserving the property, staff and legal costs, and time spent negotiating the sale and transition. It has been a “long-term arrangement with the owners,” said Weir.

Weir explained that the property actually was an active farm some time ago. She said the property has great potential, and that the Farmland Access Program allowed VLT to match it with “the right farmers.”

According to a July 10 VLT press release, Bunker Farm will seek to increase locally grown produce in the area and combine several areas of revenue: pasture-raised meat and poultry, “custom grown” flowers and plants, maple syrup, and locally sourced firewood.

The Farmland Access Program, created in 2004, was motivated by what Weir said the Vermont Land Trust saw as a need for farmers who have potential, but lack financing, to buy productive land.

Weir said the Farmland Access Program “still requires farmers come to the table with resources. Not every young farmer can do that,” she said.

The Vermont Land Trust will appear before the Dummerston Selectboard Aug. 21 to ask for letters of support and contributions from the Farmland Protection Committee for its fundraising campaign, said Weir.

Hoskins, a history teacher at The Putney School, is one of the farmers who has been selected to take over the Bunker Property.

“The Vermont Land Trust and their Farmland Access Program made it possible to bring this property back into the food economy,” he said.

Hoskins, along with the three other farmers, created a proposal detailing their farm and business plans, including projections of how they might run operations. He said the Dummerston property has good soil and is convenient to the town centers of Brattleboro, Dummerston, and Putney.

Hoskins and his partners will lease the land for the next nine months while building the infrastructure and completing planning needed for a farm operation.

All four have been in partnership for several years, said Hoskins, adding that the Bunker property was the right opportunity and that the group worked hard to design its proposal to “utilize the highest level of stewardship and attention to detail on what the property could bear.”

Hoskins is from Putney. The O'Donnell sisters are originally from Maine. Euphrat is from Brattleboro. Hoskins explained that they have been farming for most of their adult lives.

He also said he's found that community members care about the role of agriculture in the area, and believes that means they will have strong business in the area.

The group wants to ensure “access and ability to connect the community and property” to people of all ages, and “make them aware of the role of agriculture in the state of Vermont and Dummerston,” he added.

Community outreach is a key part of the proposal. The four say they hope to host an education and nature center and offer community events centered on agroecology, or the study of ecological processes that operate in agricultural production systems.

Jen O'Donnell, who teaches the second and third grades at Putney Central School, said she anticipates leading this project.

The four will rely on their current income at first, hoping to grow and establish their farm business over the next few years.

Hoskins says he appreciates that he and his partners landed approval from the Vermont Land Trust. He said keeping farmland in production is an asset to the region.

Sustaining Vermont

Hoskins and his partners join many others around the state in revitalizing farmland.

Beth Holtzman is outreach coordinator for the New Farmer's Project, an initiative of the University of Vermont Agricultural Extension's Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Berlin launched in 2010 to aid new farmers. Participants receive services that help them identify goals and tackle common problems.

She identifies three challenge areas for young and beginning farmers: access to land; business management and operation; and access to markets. She sees apprenticeship, or alternative lease or land access programs, as “good stepping stones” into eventually owning and farming land.

“If you have all [your] capacity tied up in a mortgage, you have less to invest in working capital, such as the tools you need to be able to farm,” said Holtzman.

Farmers typically need to keep their regular jobs while gearing up to commit fully to farm work, she said.

“A lot of beginning farmers are career-people with more assets,” she said. “[Securing] capital can be challenging and can take several years' savings to invest in a farm business. It may take five to seven years of transition to pull back [from] one's job and increase farm work,” she explained.

“Driven by situation, goals, and preferences, it's a toss-up of how to combine those,” she added. “Everyone is different. There's no one [right] way or recipe” to reach success as a farmer.

Vern Grubinger, a vegetable and berry specialist with UVM Extension, and who serves on Dummerston's Farmland Protection Committee, agrees:

“A lot of people are leasing land. It's good to have control of your land as you build your business,” he said , acknowledging that buying land often isn't a viable option.

Another challenge: Identifying the number of Vermont's new farmers. Holtzman points to the United States Census of Agriculture, which includes county and state data on the number of farms, their size, and characteristics.

The Census, updated every five years, was most recently updated in 2007, and shows that, at the time, farms of less than 10 years of ownership comprised about 26 percent of all Vermont farms. The 2012 census data will be released later this year, said Holtzman.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates