Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program Celebrates its 15th Anniversary, Receives $264,000 in New Federal Funding
This winter the Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program, a program of the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board, celebrates 15 years supporting the growth and success of businesses that keep Vermont’s working landscape in production. Since its creation, the Viability Program has provided business planning and technical assistance to over 500 farm, food, and forestry sector enterprises. Due to its strong track record, the program received two federal awards to expand the reach of these vital services – $100,000 from USDA Rural Development and $164,000 from the Northern Border Regional Commission – which will result in business growth and job creation in the agricultural and forestry sectors across the state.
Since the Viability Program began, twenty percent of eligible farms in Vermont have participated. A robust and interconnected network of organizations and consultants provide a business advisor, or in some cases a team of advisors, to meet over 1-2 years with enrolled business owners, including the Center for an Agricultural Economy, DairyVision VT, Intervale Center, Land for Good, Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, University of Vermont Extension, Vermont Agricultural Development Program, and Vermont Woodlands Association. On the Viability website, a map of all participants shows the breadth of the program’s influence, and a video featuring four farms – Donegan Family Dairy, Laughing Child Farm, Snug Valley Farm and Stony Pond Farm – highlights the value of the program to business owners: https://vimeo.com/189827461.
“We now know what it costs to grow an animal, produce an animal and get it to market. I think we would still be floundering and guessing if we hadn’t done the Farm Viability Program,” says Ben Nottermann, who raises beef and pork with his parents at Snug Valley Farm in East Hardwick. Emily Donegan, who milks 30 organic cows with her husband at Donegan Family Dairy, a nine-year-old business in Charlotte, believes “the best part of the program was to have a time and a place to flesh out ideas and have the support to do that.”
The Viability Program can be designed to meet any business’ needs, including businesses of any scale or production type. Farms that have used the program to expand and grow operations or plan for ownership transitions include fruit and vegetable growers like Jericho Settlers Farm, Flack Family Farm, Champlain Orchards and Harlow Farm, dairy farms including Rainville Dairy in Highgate and Centerview Farm in Enosburg, and organic dairies and on-farm dairy processors including Elysian Fields, Kimball Brook Farm, Jasper Hill Farm, Bonnieview Farm and Orb Weaver Farm.
Year after year, business owners report significant increases in their management skills as a direct result from working with their Viability business advisor. These include financial analysis and bookkeeping skills, greater abilities to plan for business investments, improved success in accessing capital, and strategic planning. For example, 66% of 2015 participants report being highly skilled in strategic planning after program completion, up from 6% before the program.
The services offered by the Viability Program have had tremendous impact on Vermont’s economy: Viability participants report an average increase in gross income of 15% and an average increase of net income of 35% in the year following the completion of their business plan. While all enrollees receive at least one year of business planning services, about 53% go on to receive a second year of services; those who do report an average increase in gross income of 30%.
“The Viability Program is a model looked to from around the country for how to provide assistance to the businesses that support the landscape, and we’re lucky to have it here in Vermont,” says Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross. In 2008 and 2013, the Viability Program hosted the National Farm Viability Conference in Middlebury, Vermont, each time bringing together over 200 professionals who work to improve the viability of farm and food businesses across the US. A third conference is planned for May 2017 in Albany, New York.
The Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program provides business planning, technical assistance, and ownership transfer planning to farm, food, forestry, and forest products businesses. For more information please visit www.vhcb.org/viability.