Credit: Mark Isselhardt
As global maple syrup production increases the markets, communities, and business owners are facing changes. Vermont has a long cultural heritage of syrup production ranging from subsistence production to commercial activity for over 100 years. 2018 is no different… for every new maple enterprise setting up to tap 50,000 trees we are likely to have 10+ new hobby producers making their own syrup and selling the excess directly in their neighborhood.
Research on farm economics has demonstrated how farms can often get caught in the middle of the push and pull of dynamic business environments and consumer preferences. The 2008 text Food and the Mid-Level Farm (Lyson, Stevenson, Welsh) explains the dilemma that faces “agriculture in the middle.” The super-small farm can often maintain a specialty niche that serves local or direct clientele. It’s common that these farms might be part-time or lifestyle farms. They may be profitable but it may not matter. The largest scale farms are producing goods at low costs and high volumes and they are serving broader markets that value uniform product, lower price points, and require sophisticated supply chain logistics. What’s left is the farm “in the middle”. These farms are full time jobs for their owner -operators that need to earn a livelihood from risky business activity. They are too big to be accepted in niche markets and too small to compete with the big players.
The recent maple price downturn has begun to reveal where the “middle maple producer” may be. Four years of maple finance benchmark analysis has shown how a reasonable owner livelihood can disappear as the business environment shifts. A small sample of 7,500-15,000 tap maple producers in VT has demonstrated the looming risk for a formerly viable owner-operated bulk syrup enterprise that can’t break even if market prices stay below $2.10 per pound. These businesses can be a too big to pivot into niche direct marketing and too small to compete in the larger wholesale markets. We don’t know where the sweet spot for a commercially viable “middle” operation will be but we do know not to assume it will stay in the same place forever. We also wait to see if a group of informed consumers that value the people and practices of “ag in the middle” will persist.
It is the nomination period for the Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year award. UVM Extension has an application form for you to nominate the farm you think exemplifies what an outstanding dairy is… great milk quality, innovation on the farm, progressive management practices, community service and ambassadorship for the industry are all characteristics of past recipients. Thanks to Richard, Bonnie and Tucker at Fairmont Farms for being great 2017 ambassadors for Vermont dairy producers!
Direct questions to either Tony Kitsos or Peggy Manahan ( email@example.com ).
The application can be found on the web at this link http://go.uvm.edu/vdfya and click on “Nominate A Farmer”. Deadline is April 30!
The Vermont Farm Viability Service Provider Network met on October 4th. This meeting of consultants and business educators is a place to share current resources to enhance farm business planning in Vermont. Topics of the day:
- NOFA-VT has produced cost of production benchmarks for carrots, onions, lettuce, winter squash and potatoes. The study has also produced whole farm financial benchmarks. Go to the cost of production benchmarks to see the sales per acre, costs per acre and net profit per acre for these crops.
- VT Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets announced the first round of Vermont Produce Safety Improvement Grants that farmers can apply for to improve on-farm produce safety. Farms can also get support for an On-Farm Readiness Review to have a one on one conversation on how the farm is doing on produce safety in advance of formal inspections.
- Dairy Industry Overview: discussions continue about how the oversupply of conventional and organic milk is impacting farm gate prices. Stagnant or declining prices paired with regulation/certification driven investments present a difficult situation for dairy business owners to navigate. Farm transfer planning is further complicated as the outlook for many dairies remains uncertain. Back to brass tacks, this group talked about the need to revisit accurate and responsible asset valuation on dairy herds and how to develop pro forma statements that negotiate short term cash flow shocks.
- Farm to Institution Spending: active research continues to explore possible opportunities to enhance regional institutional spending (schools, colleges, hospitals) on agricultural products. The looming question remains: What will it take for farms or distributors to find solutions that get the right products to the buyers at the right price.
Vermont dairy farms can apply for Dairy Improvement Grants up to $40,000 from the VHCB Farm and Forest Viability program in partnership with Commonwealth Dairy. Farmer grant submissions are due December 15th.
UVM Extension Farm Business Educators will hold free sessions to discuss eligibility, requirements and preparation for submitting a Dairy Improvement Grant application. Register to join a group session and begin to prepare your application during the workshop. Sessions are being offered statewide from November 29th – December 9th. Click this sheet for locations, times and registration information: Dairy Improvement Grant Workshops
Follow these links for more information on the grants program.
Dairy Grant Instructions (includes eligible projects and selection criteria)
VHCB Dairy Grants webpage
To register for a workshop contact Christi Sherlock at 1-866-860-1382 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Fifteen years ago the buzz word was “direct sales”, seven years ago it was “scaling-up” and in 2016 the call is to build brands. Many small farms and their owners can’t manage the “scale-up”. Can food systems entrepreneurs harness the cumulative capacity of small farms to supply market demands both near and far?
Check out this recent article originally published in Local Banquet (Spring 2016)
and featured through the Vermont Farm to Plate website: Building Brands in a Small Farm Food System
A store with empty shelf space in 2011 for locally produced eggs
What is the best reason you have heard about why money does or does not matter on a farm? Send in a comment.
When I entered the field of farm business education and consulting I entered with the naïve perception that farm managers would seek out strategies that improved the financial performance of the farm and themselves. Time and time again my presumption has proved wrong. Here is a list of reasons that money does not matter in farming. They all come from very reasonable farmers, for better or worse.
• If we were profitable, we’d have to pay taxes to the government.
• How could we continue to market products at these high prices if people knew we were actually making money?
• It’s not about money…. It’s about the land and the animals.
• The economy/marketplace does not yet recognize the true value of what we do as farmers, someday it will.
• If we made more money, my spouse would expect to go on a vacation. I don’t much want to leave the farm and the prospect of sitting on a beach with nothing to do does not appeal much either.
• Our daughter will get better financial aid packages for college if we show a loss.
• To make more money we’d have to make some tough decisions and probably makes some changes too.
• We won’t have any retirement savings when we get old, but our kids will take care of us just like we did for our parents.
• Farming is risky business and if you can’t handle that you should get out. I heard Extension has some jobs open.
• When you work this hard and don’t make hardly anything you can’t think about money. It’s too depressing.
5 Reasons Money Does Matter in Farming
• When we decided to get a loan for a reverse osmosis unit for our maple operation it cut my labor in half and saved our marriage.
• I’d like to put profits into a retirement account so that I don’t have to parcel out the farm to support me when I am no longer able to work.
• My kids have seen us struggle to make a living on this farm for 30 years… they have no interest in farming or this place.
• I want to pay people well here and provide them year round work with good benefits.
• Making these money decisions is hard work, I figure that the only way I can justify paying myself well is by doing hard work. When I catch myself doing the things in the greenhouse I remember I can pay someone $10 per hour to do them. I need to focus on other things in order to earn my $30 per hour.
Farm First is a free and confidential program available for Vermont farm owners and family members seeking assistance on a personal and workplace issues. The program can provide assistance when dealing with farm labor issues that are difficult to resolve on your own.
The program can also provide confidential counseling services related to stress, anxiety, depression,addiction and other situations where the guidance of a professional is needed. The program is available to farm owners and related family members involved in the business. Farm owners can also consider if they want to enroll in expanded employee assistance programs (EAP) to make similar services available for their employees at a very low cost.
Call Farm First at 1- 877- 493- 6216
Click this link for the Farm First description at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture website: Farm First for Vermont Farmers
Follow this web link to Invest EAP
Emotional Anxiety, Entanglement, Conflict…finding a Family Leader, Neutrality and Coach-ability. These were the concepts discussed at a December training for Farm Viability business advisers provided by Erik Thompson ( http://www.thompsonleadership.com/ ). Dr. Murray Bowen described the natural emotional processes that shape how families and social units function. Bowen Family Systems Theory provides valuable concepts for farm families and farm business advisers seeking to advance common family goals and aspirations in a productive way. It is not easy! Some of the highest risk forms of chronic anxiety in a family system manifest themselves in forms of avoidance and “over-tolerance of irresponsible behavior.”
To move past that, families and family coaches need to test their own emotional maturity to promote the best outcomes. Family leaders will develop , according to Bowen ” ….with the courage to define self, who is as invested in the welfare of the family as in self….whose energy goes to changing self rather than telling others what to do….”
Family coaches and business consultants work to establish emotional neutrality and emphasize coachability from their clients. For more on Family Systems click this link to the Vermont Center for Family Studies : http://www.vermontcenterforfamilystudies.org/
You can also check out trainings for Social Sustainability on Farms training programs through Northeast SARE: http://www.uvm.edu/~vtsare/?Page=projects.html&SM=submenu.html