As introduced by Benneth Phelps at The Carrot Project’s 10-Year Anniversary December 2016
I had the incredible opportunity to work with the three farmers of Ironwood Farm in its startup stage. I’m so proud of the way they are making a living for themselves, feeding 125 CSA families, and are feeding the soil for future generations. The owners, Jenny Parker, Aliyah Brandt and Lauren Jones, write:
Ironwood Farm is a certified organic vegetable farm run by three women on eight and a half rented acres. The farm is located in Ghent, NY. It is bordered by a grove of Ironwood trees which struck us when we first visited the land in 2013. We met while working for Little Seed, an organic farm in Chatham, NY. We were each excited about a farming future and wanted to find a business partnership and collaboration to make it a reality. Mentorship from Little Seed Farmers Claudia Kenny and Willy Denner helped us along our path to forming an LLC and securing land in 2014. We met the original owners of Ironwood through the farmer-landowner matching program at the Columbia County Land Conservancy. They wanted to see the land in active, sustainable production again, though they themselves were not able to farm any more.
We had a small amount of capital – about two thousand dollars each – to start the farm. We connected with the Carrot Project while searching for funding opportunities, and worked with Benneth Phelps to come up with a capital budget and finalize a business plan.
The Carrot Project was a great help to us, as starry-eyed new business owners, in shaping a realistic vision and cash flow plan. The original business plan included raising rabbits, eggs, chickens, sheep and a dairy cow – none of which have become a reality at Ironwood. But the original plan was grounded, clear and based in a knowledge of immediate resources and reasonable expectations. We worked closely with Benneth to prepare for a loan that did much more than assist the business in applying for money. Shaping a future on paper from the outset helped make Ironwood Farm a viable business, and establish profit and stability in its first three years.
The first thirty thousand dollars that the farm received from the Carrot Project financed improvements like irrigation, cultivation and harvest tools, processing equipment, and a cooler built into an old truck. The Carrot Project connected Ironwood Farm with ten thousand dollars of yearly operating capital – to be used each Spring and paid back in the Fall – and later, another fourteen thousand dollars in a capital loan to finance a delivery truck and processing space. Ironwood Farm has now paid off about half of this total fifty four thousand dollars. Although taking out debt together was intimidating, we hope our success in steadily paying the money back while growing the farm is an encouragement to future farmers considering assistance from the Carrot Project.
Ironwood Farm started in 2014 with four and a half production acres, no employees and two owners working part-time, a few local restaurant accounts, a twenty-five person winter CSA and two winter farmers markets. Now in our third season, the farm produces on eight and a half acres. All three owners are working full time at a livable wage. We have two full time employees and will employ a third in 2017.
Sparrowbush Farm is operated by Ashley Loehr in Livingston, NY. Ashley uses sustainable and innovative farming practices to produce vegetables, grains, eggs, chicken and pork. Sparrowbush Farm was started in 2011. Ashley has over 10 years of experience in agriculture, including working in various capacities at other Columbia County farms, working at a Finger Lakes winery, repairing farm equipment, and taking classes at Cornell’s Ag School. Ashley’s partner Antoine Guerlain, assists in the business and has plans to utilize the farm’s grains in an on-farm bakery in coming years.
Ashley has developed three primary marketing channels: farmers markets, local wholesale, and a winter CSA.
She focuses her in-season vegetable sales to farmers markets and wholesale customers on a few vegetable areas, specifically greens and herbs, and has established these as signature products customers recognize.
For the winter CSA, Sparrowbush offers a diverse array of products, including items from four other producers. Customers receive vegetables, free-range/non-GMO meat and eggs, bread, dairy, and grains. The CSA offers two monthly on-farm pickups from November to April.
Sparrowbush benefits from a five-year lease that includes a house, barn and 98 acres of land. The lease allows for adjustments to the barn or property as needed to accommodate the diverse and growing operation.
Sparrowbush benefited from a loan to upgrade and add field equipment and wash/pack equipment to facilitate efficient expansion. In addition, financial technical assistance and working capital to smooth out seasonal income and expense fluctuations were part of the loan package.
Shadow Creek Farm is a startup market garden farm in Fairfax, VT operating on 1 acre. The farm sells fresh salad greens to local restaurants, as well as cucumbers, radishes and hot peppers to regional distributors and processors.
Some of Shadow Creek’s main customers are Vermont Pepper Works, The Bearded Frog, Lazy Farmer and Deep Root Cooperative.
Owner Eli Hersh has an extensive background in commercial produce, from organic production to retail sales to restaurant preparation. In addition to six seasons of experience growing organic vegetables for CSA, farmers market, and wholesale production, Eli has also spent many years turning these vegetables into prepared meals at a variety of different restaurants. Before that, he worked in retail food marketing.
This full-circle experience has given him not only the basic skills necessary to run a small farm operation, but also the understanding of what makes a product valuable and convenient to commercial consumers.
Eli also trialed a pastured duck operation and settled on vegetables a better farm profit center to develop in the long run.
Shadow Creek is a part-time enterprise that Eli operates with a lease to land and equipment from his employer, River Berry Farm. Eli is able to benefit during startup from low overhead and a supportive mentor in farmer and River Berry owner, David Marchant.
Eli also benefited from assistance from UVM extension, Intervale Center and The Carrot Project, for a variety of technical assistance during his startup.
The loan provided was a mix of farm supplies and working capital needed for the first year of operations.
New Beat Farm grows certified-organic vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Farmers Adrienne Lee and Ken Lamson sell directly to customers through CSA shares and at farmers markets. Now in their fourth year in this location, Adrienne and Ken are assessing how to fine-tune the farm business.
“We are committed to taking the best of the old ways and using them in new agricultural systems. Our mantra is to work toward self- reliance within our community and our bioregion. Farming is our form of environmental activism.”
Working with draft horses greatly reduces the farm’s dependence on fossil fuels and fertilizers, increases the farmers’ financial independence, and is a profound source of pleasure.
Adrienne Lee and Ken Lamson are native Mainers who have chosen to return home. “We farm,” they say, “because it is the best way for us to live by our ideals and give back.” Ethical considerations of sustainability and self-reliance play a strong role in shaping the farm business.
Their path to full-time farming has included college and apprenticeships. To increase their business skills, the couple has engaged with organizations such as Women, Work & Community and the Maine Organic Gardener and Farmer Association (MOGFA) Journeyperson Program.
In 2012, Adrienne and Ken found farmland in midcoast Maine that would become their permanent home and were accepted into a cost-share program to install an irrigation system. A bridge loan from The Carrot Project and its lending partner, Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (CEI), helped the couple meet the cost-share requirements. “The loan allowed us to make a huge investment that contributed to the farm’s reliability,” Adrienne says.
In 2014, New Beat Farm is entering its sixth year. Adrienne and Ken have an established business and are committed to farming. Their growing edge is to find the right balance of farm products, markets, and personal effort for long-term sustainability.
Overview Of Outcomes
The loan provided Adrienne and Ken with capital at a critical time in the farm’s development. The funds helped the young couple to:
• install an irrigation system to deliver water to field-grown vegetables, herbs, and flowers
• meet program requirements to pay installation costs upfront (and be reimbursed at project completion)
• grow crops reliably — the cornerstone of the farm’s success
“There are plenty of people who have farming skills. Putting it all together, with the right financing and support to make a business, is the bigger challenge,” Adrienne says. Speaking of The Carrot Project and its Maine lending partner, CEI, she adds, “It is a really good and necessary organization for young farmers who are struggling to find financing.”
Direct Loan Outcomes
In their first growing season, Adrienne and Ken faced the task of converting former pasture into beds for growing vegetables. The farm had an irrigation pond but it lacked a system for delivering it to the fields.
The couple found funding for the project in a cost-sharing program through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Their initial success, however, was tempered by the terms of the program, which required the farmers to make all payments, and then be reimbursed when the project was done. This was a significant hurdle; traditional lenders see young farmers in a start-up business as too great a risk.
Funds from CEI and The Carrot Project served as a bridge loan, allowing Adrienne and Ken to complete the project and launch their farm. “In dry seasons, irrigation can make a dramatic difference,” says Adrienne. “Through the irrigation system, we have more reliable crop yield per acre, resulting in more income per acre. That is huge.”
Refining the Farm Business
In 2014, New Beat Farm is entering its six year. “We have gotten comfortable with our draft-powered operation and we know that we can successfully raise vegetables,” Adrienne says. “We know we can do it and make money at it.” Having reached this stage, they are now refining the farm business for long-term sustainability.
A second loan from CEI has served as a cash flow loan, giving them a cushion while they make changes in the business. They know that they have the right number of acres in production. Now they are refining what they produce on the land, and how they market those products, to increase their income.
Building Long-Term Sustainability
Adrienne and Ken’s growing edge is to find the right balance of farm products, markets, and personal effort for long-term sustainability. Based on their experience as farmers and business owners, they have identified these opportunities:
• reduce the number of summer CSA shares
• increase production and sale of winter storage crops to sell at winter farmers markets
• expand the farm’s offerings to include lamb meat
• extend the current flower CSA into a cut flower business
“We’re asking ourselves how we can have environmental and economic sustainability and maintain a healthy quality of life.” says Adrienne. “A lot of farms make it for 10 years and either find sustainability or crash and burn. It’s important to find balance.”
Bridport Creamery is a VT based and sourced cheese operation selling fresh and aged cheeses from both cow and goats milk. It is owned and operated by business partners Nicole Foster and Julie Danyew, who sought a place suitable for operatations for eight years before deciding to invest in starting from the ground up by building a new facility.
Prior to starting the farm Nicole worked in dairy farming, farming since she was 16 years old. Julie was previously a cheesemaker at Crocker Family Farm for five years.
The Creamery building was erected during the spring and summer of 2013 and cheese production began in September 2013. The Creamery currently offers cheese curd and feta cheese products. They are in the process of developing their aged cheese lines.
The loan from The Carrot Project in collaboration with Vermont Community Loan Fund was used for a combination of cheese making equipment and working capital in the business’ first year. The Carrot Project was uniquely able to fund the business during the startup phase, a challenging time for businesses to find capital.
Bridport is located on the property of Iroquois Acres Farm, owned by Nicole’s parents and operated by Nicole’s brother. The creamery uses both cow and goats milk to make different varietal cheese. The cows milk comes form Iroquois Acres and the goats milk comes from other local producers in VT.
A key component in Nicole’s reasons for starting the Creamery was to operate a business that worked in conjuntion with her farmily’s farm and ensures that the farm remains viable over the long term. The Creamery will offer a stable & higher price outlet to the Iriquois Acres, and allow the farm to reduce herd size dramatically and focus on quality, management, and ecological concerns, instead of on volume. The farm is at the edge of Lake Champlain, so decreasing the herd size reduces ecological pressure on the lake, which is an important consideration to these land stewards.
Bridport Creamery is selling their products at farmers markets and stores around VT. The product fills a niche of offering some unique fresh cheeses – the cheese curds and fresh goats milk feta. You can visit Bridport on the web at www.bridportcreamery.com.
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