Editors Note: This piece, prepared by Carrie Abels, comes to us from Vermont’s Farm to Plate, and describes “How Bread & Butter Farm worked with a patchwork quilt of funding sources to keep land conserved for agriculture.” Whether you’re in a start-up phase or you’ve been farming or ranching for a long time, you could get some inspiration for how you might find and work with funders.
Bread & Butter Farm, which straddles the South Burlington/Shelburne border, sells an array of farm products and experiences—everything from grass-fed beef to fresh-baked German bread to winter vegetables to farm-fresh burgers served on Friday evening “Burger Nights.”
But the diversity of Bread & Butter’s offerings pales in comparison to the diversity of funding sources that financed the 2009 start-up of the farm and the sale of the farmland to the current farmers.
Nearly a dozen organizations and more than 25 individuals were involved, including a statewide land trust, a local land trust, two municipalities, an agricultural lender, a foundation, an angel investor, CSA members, and nonprofits. Although this particular patchwork quilt of financing sources was unique to Bread & Butter Farm, the fact is that new farm ventures must often pull together a variety of financing sources, particularly if the purchase of valuable land is involved.
How the Project Was Put in Motion
In the summer of 2009, Corie Pierce was living in Michigan and about to move back to Vermont with her partner to take a faculty position at Sterling College. She wasn’t intending to buy a farm yet, but her friend Adam Wilson, with whom she wanted to eventually start a farm in Vermont, called her from Essex Junction, where he was operating a bakery and small creamery at the time.
“He said, ‘I think I found our farm,’” Corie recalls. “I was like, “Wait, it’s a couple years too early. I’m not even back yet!’ And he said, ‘Yeah, and the application is due in 4 weeks.’”
The “application” Adam was referring to was being circulated by the Vermont Land Trust (VLT), which was seeking a farmer to take over the 143-acre Leduc farm on the South Burlington/Shelburne line. When Maurice Leduc had sold his dairy cows in 2004, his enviable property—owned by himself and four siblings—was headed towards inevitable development. But a handful of South Burlington residents who had formed the South Burlington Land Trust just a year before reached out to VLT and, along with other parties interested in conserving the land, asked the organization to help transfer the property to a working farmer.
One of those residents was Sarah Dopp, a neighbor of the Leducs. In the early 1990s, she recalls, “I started, very subtly, to drop little leaflets from the Vermont Land Trust in the mailbox [of the Leducs] suggesting that if you ever have to get out of farming, I hope you’ll remember the Vermont Land Trust.”
Why Various Funders Became Involved
VLT negotiated with the Leducs for a few years and eventually agreed to a purchase price for the farm and a transition plan. The end result would be the conveyance of the farm to new farmers and a conservation easement placed on the land when the land was sold.
A conservation easement is a legal document that prevents certain kinds of development from taking place on a parcel of land. Landowners “sell” an easement to a conservation organization by receiving the monetary difference between the land as it’s appraised and the land as it’s valued without development. (Some landowners choose to donate the easement.) When the land is put on the market at the agricultural value, it is more affordable for farmers, who often need to invest in equipment and buildings after buying land.
Most easements—such as the Leduc easement—stipulate that only agricultural structures, homes for a family and/or farm labor housing can be built on the land. All types of agricultural, and forestry activities can take place on the land, in perpetuity.
The appraised value of the Leduc family land was nearly $2 million; the agricultural value (and eventual sale price of the property) was $225,000. That left a roughly $1,775,000 gap, which VLT president Gil Livingston says was quite substantial for a conservation land deal in Vermont.
The gap was partially filled by the two municipalities in which the farm was located: Town of Shelburne and the City of South Burlington. They contributed $250,000 and $500,000, respectively, from their conservation funds. In addition, there was a $450,000 grant from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board—a grant that included matching federal funds from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Burlington Land Trust kicked in $9,000 to help VLT with expenses.
For the remaining $500,000, VLT and the Castanea Foundation each made a $250,000 loan. (These loans will be repaid through South Burlington’s Transfer of Development Rights program—more on that below). Tim Storrow, Castanea’s executive director, says involvement with the project was appealing because VLT was not only conserving land but seeking a farmer to work it.
A Closer Look at TDRs and VLT’s Farmer Access Program
A unique feature of the Bread & Butter sale was the use of South Burlington’s Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program. Municipal TDR programs foster conservation by allowing landowners of preservation-worthy parcels to “sell” their development rights if they agree to preserve their land. Those rights are then purchased by developers, who are given the right to build in an area of the town that is designated for high-density development.
TDR deals are complex and can be somewhat risky for sellers, as sellers do not receive compensation until a developer buys their development rights. In the interim, zoning changes or a slumping economy can lead to a decrease in demand for development rights. However, demand for the rights can also be high and payment swift.
In the Leduc deal, the Vermont Land Trust turned to the TDR program because, as Gil Livingston says, “We’re always looking for creative options when we’re challenged to finance major conservation deals.” The loans from VLT and the Castanea Foundation to purchase the TDR’s from the Leducs will be paid back once a developer buys the family’s development rights. Essentially, the two organizations took on the risk of selling the rights.
Another key aspect of the Leduc deal was the involvement of VLT’s Farmland Access Program. This program actively seeks farmers to buy agricultural property conserved by VLT. Prospective farmer-buyers must fill out an extensive application, and at least three years of solid farming experience is required. On average, 10 properties a year are transferred to farmers through the program.
What drew VLT to Corie and Adam’s business plan proposal for the Leduc farm was that Adam was already farming in Chittenden County and Corie not only had years of farming experience but was also working at Sterling College as an instructor in the sustainable agriculture program and as the garden manager.
“You could see they were at the next stage of where they wanted to go with a farm business,” says Jon Ramsay, director of VLT’s Farmland Access Program. He notes that the business partners also indicated a genuine willingness to make their farm a community-oriented gathering place.
How Bread & Butter Pulled it All Together
Corie had managed a few farms in her past, but says, “There’s something really different about setting up your own farm from scratch and then running it.” Even though their new property already featured a few farm buildings, Corie and Adam faced numerous costs for additional infrastructure, including a tractor, a greenhouse, and a bakery in which Adam could make his signature German breads.
Early on, Corie and Adam received a $40,000 loan from an angel investor who had come to know Adam from buying his products in Essex Junction. Corie says farmers aspiring to buy land can benefit from farming on rented land for a few years; they can establish a customer base that can then support a land purchase.
After Bread & Butter was established, about 25 CSA customers received a set discount on their initial investment rate in exchange for assistance with farm start-up costs. About $35,000 was raised this way.
Then, over the course of 2010, the farm received the following loans:
$15,000 from The Carrot Project, a nonprofit focused on small-farm financing solutions
$15,000 from the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA Vermont)
$35,000 from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency
$20,000 from a private investor
And in 2012, Corie asked Healthy Living Market—a food market in South Burlington that emphasizes local products—if they were interested in providing a loan so the farm could build a second greenhouse. She suggested that Healthy Living could get first dibs on all the winter greens from that greenhouse. The market agreed, offering the farm a two-and-a-half-year loan at a near-negligible interest rate.
In short, Corie and Adam had to engage in a lot of fundraising in a short amount of time. “We’re only taking a deep breath now,” Corie says today. She adds that nearly all of the farm’s loans have been paid off.
The Benefits of Planning and Diversity
Today, the most popular events at Bread & Butter Farm are the Friday evening “Burger Nights” in the summer. Families gather to hear live music—booked by Chris Dorman, Corie’s husband, who is also the emcee—and people eat burgers made from the farm’s grass-fed cows. The burgers are served with with farm veggies and buns made in Adam’s bakery.
What makes the burger nights and everything else on the farm flow—and what will soon allow Corie and Adam to make a better living from their work—is Bread & Butter’s business plan. To create their plan, the business partners received assistance from the Vermont Farm and Forest Viability Program, which offers business planning assistance to farmers.
Corie calls the financial management of the farm “a whole additional job besides farming.” But she says, “Five years into it, we really understand our business plan and can make decisions for the farm based on real knowledge and experience.”
And so, a number of years after the South Burlington Land Trust began nudging the Leduc family toward a conservation deal, Chittenden County residents have a highly diverse farm in their backyard where they can buy a variety of products and establish a personal connection with the land.
Want to learn a bit more? Here’s the complete piece, that includes list of resources and definitions of some terms.