Farm Transfer Can Happen Outside the Family

By Tony Kitsos, Dairy Business Program Manager

I recently had the opportunity to work with and advise three farm business owners in structuring the transition of their businesses to prospective buyers who were not family members or neighboring farmers. As advisors, we often hit a wall when farmers express to us that there is no “next generation coming along”; that their children and relatives are not interested in becoming farm owners. Many family members state that they have no interest in working that hard for so many hours only to have too little money to show for it. Others say that they just want to follow their own path to success, usually outside of agriculture and the family business. Such was the case for all three of these farm businesses.

Each farm took a couple of years to find a young, knowledgeable and energetic person to bring in to their thriving businesses. They wanted to show them the ropes while they had the energy and health to provide mentorship. Let’s face it… with the way values of farmland, cattle and machinery have risen over the last 20 years, it’s extremely difficult for a young farmer to walk into a bank and borrow enough money to buy the business and then survive through the first two years of operating expenses unless there is plenty of cash to start with. Lenders do not want to see a new farmer fail for lack of cash and equity. The current owner has to make a decision: Do I sell outright to another farmer or bring someone new into the business? The approach is similar to that of a typical transfer – determine a period of time to “get up to speed” on the existing business, another block of time to begin the sure and steady transfer of certain assets to the incoming owner and then an outright purchase at the end of the trial period.

In each case, the owners had set up a combination of asset transfer for revenue increases over a specified schedule. The implicit agreement was: “Make this business better and more profitable over the transition period and it will be good for both of us.” In these scenarios there is mutual benefit from the continued and increased success of the business. Careful attention must be paid to the development of a sound exit strategy – one that covers both parties in case of a falling out or a change of heart. So gather in all of your trusted advisors, lay out a plan, let them shoot holes in it, restructure, and most of all don’t give up. There is a new generation of farmer anxious to get started with the right tools for success.

Northern New England Dairy Webinars from UNH, UMaine, and UVM

By Tony Kitsos

On May 5th and 7th I had the opportunity to represent Vermont as part of the Northern New England Dairy Discussion webinars hosted by the University of New Hampshire’s Elaina Enzien. Extension dairy specialists Peter Erickson, Mike Sciabarrasi, Carl Majewski and Seth Wilner (New Hampshire), Gary Anderson and Rick Kersbergen (Maine) and I offered participants some sound dairy management strategies to help deal with the recent low milk prices and new pricing models. We focused on “right sizing” animal numbers, switching from 3x to 2x milking frequency, ration adjustment and using milk to feed animals on the farm as means to achieve cooperative reduction goals.

Also on the webinars were Catherine DeRonde from Agrimark, and Leon Berthiaume from DFA /St Albans to discuss the two-tier milk pricing model and what producers in each cooperative can expect for the remainder of the summer. Milk market volatility is now being driven by supply and distribution chain challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, with both cooperatives forced to take measures to reduce the flow of milk coming in to their plants.

The series proved to be timely and very popular, with over 140 participants registering for the two-day session. A link to presentation materials and the video recording of the webinars can be found HERE at the UNH website. We plan to continue the series throughout the summer, with the next session being held on Tuesday, June 16th. Find more information and register HERE.

UVM Extension Agricultural Business To Host Weekly Web Forum

For the remainder of April UVM Extension Agricultural Business will host a 30-minute web forum every Thursday at 12:30pm to keep pace with emerging COVID-19 issues faced by farm and forest businesses. Each session will include an update on market situations for our farming sectors and information on hot topics, as well as time for questions and discussion.

 Weekly Focus Topics:

  • April 16th:  SBA Emergency Loan Programs
  • April 23rd:  Cash Flow Triage for Small Business
  • April 30th: Digital Entrepreneurship and Online Marketing

Please register in advance for this web meeting.

Contact Mark.Cannella@uvm.edu to register.

Watch for updates about this series on our blog.

UVM Extension Agricultural Business Educators are available for consultation

If your farm, forest or maple business is under pressure to plan for COVID-19 disruption, our educators are available for business coaching and can assist with locating resources. We can help with critical business decision-making, assessing changes to markets, financial planning and other issues facing your enterprises.

Contact one of our educators by email or leaving a voicemail to make an appointment:

Farm, Forest and Maple Business Clinics

UVM Extension Business Specialists Mark Cannella, Tony Kitsos, Chris Lindgren, Betsy Miller and Zac Smith are available to work one-on-one with farm, forest and maple businesses on their finances. Reserve a 1½ hour appointment to prepare documents that will help manage the business. Use the time to develop a balance sheet, update financial statements, review a business plan, consider changes to the business and more. Bring your financial statements, recent records and questions!

➥ 1½ hour, private meetings
➥ Nearly 100 appointments available from February – April 2020
➥ Held at UVM Extension Offices in 9 locations (Online or phone meetings are also available)
➥ FREE!

Business Clinics Information Sheet (PDF)

Contact Christi Sherlock at Christi.Sherlock@uvm.edu or 802.476.2003 to register for one of the appointments listed below.

To ensure adequate preparation, reservations must be made by the Thursday of the week before your appointment. If you require a disability-related accommodation to participate, please call at least three weeks in advance of your scheduled session.

Useful Farm Tax resources…or are they?

by Betsy Miller, Farm Management Educator

I work with many types of farms and farmers in business planning.  I don’t keep track of the percentage, but I would say a majority of the folks I work with hire a professional to prepare their tax returns. However, I am a firm believer that a basic understanding of the rules is helpful even to those who hire a professional. 

When I sat down to write this I planned to share a few links of resources that would be helpful to farmers who either prepare their own returns or just want a better understanding.  What I found was a little disturbing.  Many of the sites that I used to find helpful are now out of date.  We all expect things to change from one year to the next, but there were some big changes in 2018 and many of the farm tax resources out there do not reflect or even mention those changes. 

I urge any of you who use the internet to find tax resources to check the dates on what you are reading. Make sure you are getting current information.

The one link that I will recommend is the IRS Pub 225 Farmers Tax Guide

Any Given Timber Harvest

by Chris Lindgren, Forest Business Educator

There must be as many ways to harvest timber as there are loggers, likely more. Every approach may not be “best,” but most are acceptable.  Each logger has a different set of equipment and a different crew with a variety of experience and skills, forest landowners have varying visions and objectives, and forest managers approach forest systems and forest operations based on their sensibilities. Each of these variables factor into a logger’s approach.

Whatever the circumstances, all parties desire a positive economic outcome. At all stages of production those who add value want to be fairly compensated for their work. The win-win result hopefully applies to both the cash value of materials harvested and the impacts on the residual stand, as well. Clearly, this is not always how it works out.

When I first began business planning work with logging contractors, one of the first workshops I attended was with Steve Bick of Northeast Forests LLC. I “got” to play a game Steve called penny logging.  This game was like production and assembly exercises I had encountered at various lean trainings over the years.  The objective: given certain constraints, arrange assets and production to achieve the smoothest, most economic output. Over the years I have become keenly aware of the constraints (terrain, soil, weather, ownership, regulation) on any given timber harvest. The harvest in the video above is an example of loggers using the constraints to their advantage, creating an exciting and elegant material flow. Enjoy!

Are you on track to reach your goals this year?

by Betsy Miller

On a recent visit to a diversified farm I noticed a whiteboard posted in the office that listed sales goals for each month.  At the end of each month actual sales were tallied and written alongside the goals set back in January.

Goal setting is an important part of the business planning process.  People commonly refer to “SMART” goals – usually meaning Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, & Timely.  Setting goals that clearly define success (or failure) make it much more likely that we will hold ourselves accountable for the plans we make.  The farm I visited has a prominent display reminding them every day where they are relative to meeting sales goals.

As important as it is to set those goals in the first place, it is equally important to review them, update them, and determine if they were met.  Mid-year check-ins can help to identify areas that might be lagging while you still have time to change course.

Don’t let your goals become like New Year’s resolutions forgotten by Groundhog Day.  Keep them fresh and check regularly to see if you are on track to reach them.

Spring Has Sprung – a Gasket!

by Tony Kitsos

This spring has been quite a challenge, to say the least! Weather reports across the state talk about rain in some location on any given day, and that makes us a bit grumpy! We’ve waited all winter to get this year’s crops in the ground and take first cut off — and here it is June 5th with plenty of work to do on most farms.

On a recent early-June drive from Morrisville to Middlebury I saw a good many cornfields un-spread, un-plowed, and unplanted. And the window for getting a mid-May first cut in and covered was slammed shut by a month with rainfall 4” over the historical average. The New Englander’s adage of a year’s seasons being 4 months of winter and 8 months of damn poor sleddin’ has held court. It seems that if there’s less that can be done in the field, it hampers doing other projects – just don’t want to get wrapped up in anything else in case the weather breaks and it’s time to head to the fields.

All well and good, but while we wait, we need to turn our attentions to another season that’s upon us… Construction season. As if having too much water in the fields isn’t enough, there’s plenty of mud hanging around the farmstead and making quite a mess! It’s pointing out some of the high-risk areas that need to be filled in, drained, graded, or whatever is needed to minimize farmstead runoff into our waterways. Take the opportunity to find areas needing attention. Do some easy fixes. And be sure that we’re all responsible for containing runoff when and where it occurs.

UVM Agricultural Business has funds to help you assess the financial feasibility of some of the more comprehensive projects. We work independently, or with NRCS and VAAFM staff to help you find the best, most cost-effective solutions to most any water quality situation.  Give us a call at the St. Albans office at 802-524-6501 and ask for Tony Kitsos. I’m looking forward to starting the conversation.

Ecosystem Services Valuation – What is it, and should we look at farming practices differently?

By Tony Kitsos

In my opinion, any discussion concerning ecosystems and the services we gain from them must begin with the teachings of conservationist Aldo Leopold. In his seminal book, A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949, Leopold wrote on “The Land Ethic”:

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land. This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter down river. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.

Leopold saw the value in land “conservation,” understanding that we must be able to both use, and preserve, that which we dwell upon – not only for monetary gain but for our very existence as a species.

Enter the discussion on valuing the conservation of habitat. Ecosystem Services Valuation (ESV) can be thought of as placing emphasis on “ecosystem services” by making an explicit link between the functions of nature and the subsequent benefits (goods and services) provided to society as a result of those functions. The “goods,” such as milk, beef, seafood, forage, timber, biomass fuels and natural fiber are easy to account for and important to human welfare. They usually have monetary value and are accounted for in the traditional functioning of our economy. The “services,” on the other hand, are just as valuable but are not accounted for in the consumer market. In other words, we do not directly pay for our use of them. They provide basic life-support functions, such as clean air, clean water, flood attenuation, carbon storage and sequestering, nutrient cycling, and biodiversity, to name a few.

But should we place economic value on these services? And if so, who should pay? With Legislation beginning in 1948 through today, dozens upon dozens of legislative actions at both the federal and state levels aimed at conservation and environmental protection have been passed. Most recently, Act 64, Vermont’s Clean Water Act, came on the scene, requiring farm businesses to adopt a wide array of practices geared towards improving the water quality of our state. With a combination of grants from NRCS EQIP and VAAFM BMP sources, farms can receive significant cost share towards implementation of these practices. However, the residual costs become the responsibility of the farmer and when profit margins are razor thin at best, those costs are daunting.

Are Vermonters receiving more value than just a new manure pit or barnyard to control unwanted direct discharges? What of the ecosystem value down the road – what value should be placed on land that must be maintained and farmed in specific ways? And does the product produced become more valuable? Should those goods be revalued to account for the “ecosystem services” provided by our land stewards – the producers? We may be entering into this arena of ESV and looking at other yet-to-be-identified players to actually pay for the future “ecosystem services” provided by Vermont farmers.  

Let’s keep in mind Leopold’s description of land ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”