Vermont program helps farmers with generational transitions

Vermont’s farmers continue to get older according to USDA data, making it tough for industry leaders to plan for the future.
Published: Apr. 18, 2022 at 8:30 AM EDT
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MONKTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont’s farmers continue to get older according to USDA data, making it tough for industry leaders to plan for the future.

Vermont’s average age for farm ownership is 56 years old and continues to tick up. That means the number of transitions from one owner to another could be picking up in years to come.

WCAX News talked with a family in Monkton going through the transition right now.

“We are five years into a 15-year lease to own transition plan,” said Silas Doyle-Burr.

Doyle-Burr didn’t always know he wanted to be a farmer even though he grew up on a farm. A desk job out of college just wasn’t cutting it.

“I just wasn’t getting my hands dirty but that was something that was really important to me,” said Doyle-Burr.

He proposed taking over Last Resort Farm, his parents’ organic vegetable operation. It came out of left field.

“They hadn’t really had a transition planned or hadn’t really considered it,” said Doyle-Burr.

“It was kind of unexpected,” said Eugenie Doyle.

Doyle and her husband, Sam Burr, are no strangers to transitions. They took over a conventional dairy operation that then turned to organic vegetables when milk prices plummeted.

But they didn’t expect one of their kids to take the farm on. Doyle describes the interest as a welcomed surprise. But not an easy one, there are things no one thinks about when passing on or purchasing a farm.

“The finances, what to do about the other children and the day-to-day operation of giving up control,” said Doyle.

You don’t just hand the keys over and shake hands, so the family looked for help.

“We do business planning and then we do transition planning. Those are sort of our two programs,” said Cally Hastings, the program manager for the Vermont Farm and Forest Viability Program.

Hastings says no farm is alone in finding hurdles in the transition process.

“We see a lot of demand for it, all the time. We get calls, it’s dairy farms, it’s organic, it’s conventional, it’s vegetable, it’s really across the board,” said Hastings.

Hastings says the calls keep coming in and they anticipate more inquiries as the population ages and the land value in Vermont increases.

The transition process can include finding the right new owner, real estate check-ins, asset management like infrastructure, purchasing timelines and control.

“People look around and think about how are we going to keep this working landscape going,” said Hastings.

At the Last Resort Farm, that includes passing on to the next generation.

“Knowing the person that will be taking it over so well is a real privilege,” said Doyle.

These transitions don’t come without hiccups. Another important aspect of all of this is difficult conversations and family dynamics.

Some of these changes are hard and heighten emotions as control is transferred from one generation to the next.

Burr says it’s hard to watch a farm get passed down, even to your son, but it’s important to take the larger view.

“He has taught me a lot and he has also taught me that he is very competent and capable of doing this himself, and so I don’t need to worry. That’s an important thing because we do worry because we felt like we were entrusted with this place and seeing it go on is really important,” said Burr.

Doyle and Burr say they aren’t totally hanging up their hats just yet.

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