Vermonters Get Creative to Keep the Family Farm

A barn in Burlington Vermont.
A barn in Burlington Vermont.

Vermont Farms offer Visitors Time Down on the Farm

By Jared Shein

Hannah Sessions of Blue Ledge Farm, Salisbury Vermont.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 2018, that number fell to below 6800, according to the state’s agricultural overview.

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 falling milk prices 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.

Vermont Farms!

A shrinking amount of local farmers has also spelled the end of long-standing local organizations.  The Vermont Farms! Association—a community organization that supplied farm-related information such as how to run an agritourism enterprise, and a listing of local farms and farm B&B’s—had to shut its doors a few years back when former president and owner of Liberty Hill Farms Beth Kennett had to step down to take care of her injured husband.

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 former president of the now-defunct 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.”

Happy cows at Butterworks farm, Westfield Vermont.
Happy cows at Butterworks farm, Westfield Vermont.

Vermonters Diversifying

Vermonters are now doing their best to diversify their farms and creatively respond to the challenges that are facing them. Some 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.

The VFA has also begun to bounce back as the University of Vermont now provides agrotourism info and diginvt.com has recently jumped in to provide lists of local farm B&B’s and farm-related events.

Hollister Hill Farm

One of those B&B’s is located at Hollister Hill Farm in Marshfield VT.  Bob and Lee Light purchased the farm in 1983 and have been running it ever since.  At first, they mainly farmed dairy cows, but in 1999—amid a changing market—they sold the cows and started turning their 12 room farmhouse into a B&B.

Garden at Hollister Hills Vermont.
Garden at Hollister Hills Vermont.

The farm has changed a lot over the years, but in the present-day farmer Lee Light emphasized that the farm primarily focuses on diversification, local food, sustainable living, gardening, animal care, and peace.

These focuses are evident in their diverse modes of income, as according to Light, Hollister Hill currently has, “A herd of beef cattle, a barn full of pigs, chickens, ducks, kittens and a farm store where we sell the meat that we raise, and eggs when we have them.”

The farm store is the only place where the Lights sell their product, so the B&B is a significant source of their income.

It consists of both single and double rooms and a separate “little house” for larger families on longer stays.  A night at the B&B also includes a home-cooked breakfast and dinner with produce from the farm.

Hollister B and B on the farm in Vermont.
Hollister B and B on the farm in Vermont.

Meals are a very important part of the whole Hollister experience, as Light notes, “We sit down and we eat breakfast with our guests, which leads to some very nice conversation.  We try and get people to talk to each other and have camaraderie.”

Despite the diversity of the farm, and success of the B&B, Hollister Hill still faces an array of challenges.  When I asked Light about some of these challenges she responded with a chuckle.

“We’re farmers,” she said, “Keeping all the ducks in a row on a farm and having everything run smoothly all the time is a challenge.  Bob and I have been on this farm for 37 years, and some years are very good; other years a crop doesn’t quite work out.”

Liberty Hill Farms

Milking a Cow at Liberty Hill
Milking a Cow at Liberty Hill

Beth and Bob Kennet of Liberty Hill Farms have faced similar struggles in recent years.  Liberty Hill owns a herd of dairy cattle, and their primary obstacle has been the volatile dairy economy.

According to Beth, the United States is currently in the midst of the longest downturn in the dairy economy since the 1930s.

The B&B does a lot to help with the income though, as Beth noted that the Kennets would not be able to keep their dairy farm up and running without its help.

The B&B provides a solid revenue source, but just as important for the Kennets is the “Psychological and spiritual support for our family.” Beth continues, “The caring and love and support that we get from our guests really helps us want to keep the farm going.”

Liberty Hill provides B&B guests with breakfast and dinner along with a cozy room, and Beth Kennet is known for her delicious breakfasts and family-style dinners (chicken pot pie with homemade biscuits and carrot souffle is a favorite).

Beth Kennet with her granddaughter on their farm.
Beth Kennet with her granddaughter on their farm.

Like Lee at Hollister Hills, Beth also tries to make guests feel like they’re part of the family.  “It’s not like a bed and breakfast where it’s just about the bed and the pancakes,” Beth says, “It’s come and be a part of our family.”

No matter what we discussed, the family theme kept coming up with Beth.  She and her husband have spent most of their lives farming and are always delighted at the opportunity to pass down their way of life to the next generation.

“In addition to grandchildren, I also have grand-guests,” Beth said while telling me about a family who has been staying at the B&B for three generations.

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 help pass it down to the next generation.  It is important to realize that the aesthetic of a green hillside with barn and silos has value and it is important to show young ones how to see that 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. As Beth said, “It’s truly been a wonderful experience for us and our family to be able to host people from all across the country and all around the world.”

VERMONT FARM B&B’s

Allenholm Orchards Bed & Breakfast Suite
S. Hero, VT
802-372-5566
apples@together.net

Emergo Farm Bed & Breakfast
Danville, VT
888-383-1185
emergo@together.net

Green River Inn
Sandgate, VT
802-375-2272 or 888-648-2212
betsy@greenriver.com

Hollister Hill Farm Bed & Breakfast
Marshfield, VT
802-475-7725
www.central-vt.com
hhfarmbb@aol.com

Liberty Hill Farm
Rochester, VT
802-767-6056
www.libertyhillfarm.com

Shearer Hill Farm Bed & Breakfast
Wilmington, VT
800-437-3104
puseyshf@sover.net.

FARMS LISTED IN THIS ARTICLE

Liberty Hill Farm
Rochester, VT
802-767-6056
www.libertyhillfarm.com

Hollister Hill Farm Bed & Breakfast
Marshfield, VT
802-475-7725
www.central-vt.com
hhfarmbb@aol.com

For more information on agritourism in Vermont, visit this website

For more information on local Vermont farms, farm B&B’s and related activities, visit http://diginvt.com

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