Fighting to keep the Farm: Vermonters Get Creative to Keep the Family Farm
By Berne Broudy
Family farms are an integral part of Vermont culture, history and economic life. The Vermont State animal is the Morgan Horse, but it might as well be the Holstein. Black and white cows, red barns and green fields define the working landscape of rural Vermont.
In 1937, there were 15,000 working farms in Vermont. In 1995, that number fell to below 2000. The agricultural papers are filled with farm auction listings.
Initially, aspiring farmers were driven from Vermont by rocky soils and bitter winters. Now, rising property taxes and feed costs, low availability of farm labor and milk prices that are below production costs are bigger obstacles. Development is pushing property taxes so high that dairy farmers can’t buy or rent a field and cost-effectively grow feed for their cows.
Thankfully, Vermont farmers are a stubborn and tenacious bunch. The ones who are left won’t surrender without a fight. As Beth Kennett, farmer and president of Vermont Farms! Association, says, “Farming is your identity. It’s not a nine to five job. It’s in your blood and who you are.”
Vermonters are doing their best to creatively respond to the challenges that are facing them. Some farms have gone organic, adding value to their milk. Others supplement their herd with specialty food products like salsa, jams and gourmet mushrooms. Farm crafts, like handmade sweaters, add to some farm’s fodder. An increasing number of farms think their golden cow is tourism.
Pam and Ray Allen’s Allenholm Orchards in South Hero has been in the family since 1870. Originally it was a dairy farm. In 1960, apples were supporting the farm. Now, Pam & Ray find themselves running community-supported agriculture (people buy shares and are guaranteed fresh veggies all summer), a farm stand, an apple orchard, a raspberry patch and a Bed and Breakfast.
Making ends meet is not easy. The Allens, who are trying to make the farm support three adults, are waiting to hear from the bank about a loan application for working capital for this year.
“Vermont wouldn’t be Vermont without its farmers,” says Pam. “People here don’t want to see parking lots and high-rises. There is no other sight in the world like these apple trees exploding with sweet white blossoms each spring.”
In Rochester, Beth Kennett of Liberty Hill Farm echoes Pam’s sentiments. “Buying Vermont agricultural products is not something cute to do,” says Beth. “It keeps our communities going. If Vermont loses its farms, it is losing something far more important than fresh milk.”
Some farms invite guests to stay, eat traditional farm meals and experience life at a saner pace. Other farms have opened their barn doors as petting paddocks, vineyards, maple sugar houses, pick-your-own operations and one inn has even created a Christmas tree weekend. Your family can stay at the farm, select a farm-raised Christmas tree, and when the time comes the farm will ship it to you. Further exploiting Vermont’s dairy fame, nineteen Vermont cheese makers are now part of the “Cheese Trail.”
The Kennetts, who got into the Bed and Breakfast business before “farm-stay” was in the Vermont vocabulary, says her neighbor suggested she open her 10-bedroom farmhouse to the public. “I thought I’d be just another B&B,” says Beth, “but I quickly realized that people were coming here to be on a real farm.”
Families with children come for the “authentic experience.” Senior citizens, young couples and honeymooners also visit. They may be nostalgic or seek a sense of place. But they also come to eat Beth’s country dinners. “Guests remark that my food literally walks in the door. I pick vegetables each morning from the garden. My son brings over dozens of fresh eggs and my neighbor drops off rhubarb from her garden as soon as she picks it.”
The Kennetts are facing the same conundrum as Pam and Ray Allen. Beth’s adult sons have made the commitment to working the family farm, calling on an already over-extended farm to support three families instead of one.
Visitors to Vermont’s farm B&Bs who take the time to put their feet up on the back porch, play in the hayloft with the kittens or take a wagon ride to the swimming hole are doing an important job. It is crucial to remember the farm way of life and to realize that the aesthetic of a green hillside with barn and silos has value. If we want to keep Vermont family farms, we have to take time to remember that they have a place: in our hearts and in our landscapes.
VERMONT FARM B&B’s
Allenholm Orchards Bed & Breakfast Suite
S. Hero, VT
Emergo Farm Bed & Breakfast
Green River Inn
802-375-2272 or 888-648-2212
Liberty Hill Farm
Middletown Springs, VT
Shearer Hill Farm Bed & Breakfast
For more information on farm stays in Vermont, contact:
Vermont Farms! Association
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