Water quality regulations, market changes, low farm gate prices, and increased competition are all challenging the profitability and future viability of Vermont farms and food businesses across most production types. Working with business and technical assistance service providers is an effective way to strengthen a business in good times and work through various options during challenging times. Vermont’s agricultural and food business and technical assistance network is well established and nationally renowned. However, additional effort, investment, and personnel are needed to ensure programs and providers keep up with the rapidly evolving needs of the agricultural and food sector (e.g., succession planning, dairy supply chain disruptions), so that they are able to continue to provide relevant, high-level, valuable services to businesses across the range of production types, scales, and markets.
Many nonprofit organizations and private consultants in the state work with farms and food businesses across various stages of development, while some focus on certain stages or types, such as new and beginning farmers or growth-stage food manufacturers.
Business assistance providers work with the owners/operators of farms and food businesses to build business plans, identify and secure appropriate capital, assess capital expenditures and equipment needs, plan for business or farm succession, and strengthen their personnel and project management skills.
Technical assistance providers offer a range of support services, from agronomic and production best practice research to food safety planning, engineering and permitting support, animal health and nutrition consultations, water quality and nutrient management assessments, and equipment optimization support (e.g., temperature and humidity of produce coolers).
The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB) Farm & Forest Viability Program finds that in-depth business planning over a two-year period results in an average 10% increase in gross income and a 62% increase in net income in the year following Viability Program participation (aggregated data from 2014-2018). In addition, business planning assistance leads to higher business acumen and very high success rates in accessing capital. Of Farm & Forest Viability Program 2014 participants who used their business plan to seek financing, 100% successfully received loans and 87% successfully received grants.
An estimated 17 additional full-time business and technical assistance positions are needed to serve the sheer number of farms and food businesses who need additional support services, if Vermont’s agricultural sector is to remain the backbone of the state. There is also a great need to invest in the professional development of existing services providers, given the challenges facing the farming community — from emergency situations and financial rescue, to shifts in production and business models, to increased need to market and sell products wholesale, to beginning farmer training or succession planning. Food entrepreneurs need greater support in understanding their unit economics, how to manage cash flow while expanding their operations and navigating food safety regulations, and raising equity or other forms of expansion capital.
The importance of the existence of an aligned and coordinated network of service providers and the diverse set of accessible services they offer statewide cannot be overstated.
Business and Technical Assistance Providers
By state statute, the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board is tasked with managing the Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program in partnership with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets (VAAFM). The Viability Program manages and invests in a network of nonprofit organizations and consultants that provide wrap-around, individualized business assistance across a breadth of business topics from financial recordkeeping and business planning to management, accounting, succession planning, marketing, and enterprise analysis.
The Farm Viability network of nonprofit organizations includes UVM Extension, NOFA-VT, Intervale Center, Center for an Agricultural Economy, Land for Good, Windham Grows, and the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF).
UVM Extension also provides specialized technical and production assistance on crops, soils, engineering and design, food safety, etc., despite declining state funding, often through soft-funded Extension positions and programs.
Farm First was created by the Vermont Legislature and the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets to provide the equivalent of an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to address farmers’ needs and issues and support the emotional health of farm families. It is a critical resource available to farmers and their family members.
The Vermont Agricultural Mediation Program, primarily federally funded, provides legal and mediation resources for such issues as debt restructuring, bankruptcy, family conflicts, and succession planning.
In 2011, the State of Vermont created the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative (WLEI), which provides competitively awarded funding for business and technical assistance in addition to direct grants to agricultural, food, and forestry sector businesses. The WLEI staff and board place a high value on business and technical assistance and have seen the direct benefit to grantees who have accessed high-quality outside assistance.