Food+Co-ops: Farm Viability—Strong Networks & Thriving Farms

As you may have heard, 97% of Vermonters value the working landscape. But what's the difference between the working landscape and a pretty view? One simple answer is: farm viability.
Enid Wonnacott and colleagues at the 2008 National Farm Viability Conference NOFA-VT Executive Director Enid Wonnacott (center, in pink) and colleagues at the 2008 National Farm Viability Conference

The state of Vermont is widely recognized for the strength of its community-based food system. One of the core assets in this system is the Farm Viability Program of the VT Housing & Conservation Board, which works to increase the success of Vermont's land-based businesses. VHCB recently hosted a national conference focused on farm viability, to share the love. As VHCB Executive Director Gus Seelig noted, "The National Farm Viability Conference was a great success, drawing 200 practitioners from 18 states working to improve rural economy and reinvent a better food system for farmers and consumers." Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross added, “The conference underscored the importance of technical assistance to the success of our farming enterprises and the entrepreneurs who run the operations." The thing that made this event powerful was the same factor that makes the VT Farm Viability Program so effective: Networks. Just as VHCB partners with an array of technical assistance providers to help farms better plan their businesses, this conference convened a broad range of stakeholders dedicated to a sustainable local/regional food system to "network, develop new knowledge and skills, and visit farms and value-added processing facilities." But what did the conference mean to those who were there—both Vermonters and leaders from elsewhere in the US? And what does it say about the opportunity the VT Farm Viability Program provides to Vermont farmers and food system businesses? Cross-Pollination "The ability to engage with other folks working through similar issues in their regions, and discuss potential solutions and innovations, was incredibly stimulating. These sort of gatherings, I believe, are going to be essential in our Food Systems work development, so that we might learn from one another, and share resources." That was the perspective of Ben Filippo, Food Systems Coordinator at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. Ben traveled to Vermont from North Carolina for the conference. He has studied and developed diverse food hubs in the South. These sentiments were echoed by a Vermont-based farm viability service provider, Mark Cannella, Extension Faculty at University of Vermont (UVM), who said: "It becomes clear to me that keeping pace with new developments requires me to continually stretch myself into new skills and new relationships." A longtime partner of the VT Farm Viability Program is the Intervale Center. Intervale Center Executive Director Travis Marcotte saw a deeper level of value in the event, "For me, this conference is really a tribute to our commitment to working landscapes and our belief that by working together we can help farm and forest businesses thrive." In addition to geographic diversity, the conference brought together people playing diverse roles within the food system. For example, Dan Pullman noted, "As an investor in New England Food System solutions, I greatly value the strong collaborative dialogue between investors and with food system businesses. The Farm Viability Conference creates an intimate forum for investors and food system entrepreneurs to interact closely—this long-term relationship building is vital to sustaining a coordinated and financially sound growth strategy." Another regional investor and program developer reinforced this perception: "By bringing together a diverse group of farm and food lenders, investors, consultants, entrepreneurs, non-profit leaders, and other stakeholders for two days, VHCB was able to facilitate the collaborative thinking and action that moves the needle of regional food system change forward," said Alex Linkow—Program Director of the Fair Food Fund. The conference attracted not only service providers and food system investors, but also enterprises that do business with farmers on a daily basis, like wholesale distributor Black River Produce. As Communications Director Jean Hamilton pointed out, getting market signals moving effectively within a values-based supply chain can help local/regional food systems get to the next level. "Due to our market relationships and volume of business, we at Black River Produce collect a lot of market information that can be valuable to farmers and producers. We are eager to share this information broadly and effectively. Participating in the Farm Viability Conference allowed us to share this info directly with front-line service providers. We also benefited from hearing their expert perspectives on challenges and opportunities that businesses like ours pose to the viability of small and mid-sized producers."   A Program That Pays Off for Farmers
VT Farm Viability Program participant, Bread & Butter Farm VT Farm Viability Program participant, Bread & Butter Farm

Against a national backdrop of decreasing numbers of farms and farmers, UVM Dean of Extension Doug Lantagne notes, "Farm Viability has made an immense positive impact on farm businesses across the state. I value UVM Extension's role, in partnership with VHCB and other contractors, that has helped our agricultural businesses thrive, not just survive the last several years." So what is the VT Farm Viability Program and how can you—as a producer—get involved? Grounded in the straightforward mission of enhancing the economic viability of Vermont farmers, the program progresses logically from business planning to technical assistance in implementing business plans. It then provides opportunities to receive grants for capital expenses related to plan implementation. NOFA-VT is a service delivery partner in the VT Farm Viability Program - one of the organizations that provides the business planning and other assistance to help farms become and remain successful. Caitlin Jenness is one of the staff people involved in the program. She says that now is a good time to apply. "The season is still fresh in people's minds. Finances, production data, and process information will be at hand. The Farm Viability Program is a two-year process, so during the off-season you set up the focus, and then you have a season to work with a consultant and learn. Then you can rework your plan and keep it a working document. You can assess gaps from the first year, and track new strategies through the second year to see if they're paying off." The program has regular quarterly deadlines; the next deadline to apply to the Vermont Farm Viability Program is November 30, 2013. In addition to farmers, the program works with food enterprises and forestry enterprises. For more information: Eric DeLucaFood+Co-ops is a monthly series curated by NOFA-VT member Eric DeLuca. Eric serves on the Vermont Working Lands Enterprise Board and previously served on the Vermont Agriculture Innovation Center Board, which together have driven over $4M of investment in the Vermont working lands economy since 2010. Eric managed the International Year of Cooperatives for the US through the National Cooperative Business Association. He is currently partnering with UVM Continuing & Distance Education, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, NOFA-VT and other VT food system leaders to create the first higher ed certificate program focused on food hub management in the country.