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Conference Looks to Keep Farms Thriving

Viable farms are crucial to our economic, ecological and social way of life. How can family farms maintain viability? A group of professionals who advise farmers as they start out or grow met in Middlebury, VT, on Sept. 26 and 27 to make sure producers are hearing best practices.

The National Farm Viability Conference kicked off with a talk by Chuck Ross, Secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture and Food Markets. Sec. Ross was recently elected to head the national organization of state ag departments. He pointed out how remarkable and significant it was that Vermont’s ag chief, not one from big-ag states like North Dakota or Florida or California, was taking the national helm.  He said heads of state agencies recognize that New England’s diversified farms and direct-to-consumer model should be emulated across this nation, and urged a return to what he called agricultural literacy.

Sec. Ross also urged conference-goers to submit a comment on the Food Safety Modernization Act. “Good regulation is good marketing,” he said, explaining that workable food safety rules would be a good thing for New England farmers.

Workshops included a talk about industry benchmarks, and how farm businesses can achieve more if they know where their balance sheet stands, and how it stacks up to their neighbor’s, or the top producers in their industry. The session emphasized the importance of keeping good records, and making budgets to set goals and track progress.

“Farmers are tremendously guilty of self-exploitation,” said Richard Wiswall of Cate Farm, author of The Organic Farmers Business Handbook. Factoring in a draw for themselves is vital, he added.

Conference-goers got to see a tangible example of success in progress during a tour of a new milk bottling facility in Hinesburg, VT. Kimball Brook Farm owners Cheryl and JD DeVos own an organic grass-fed dairy farm and decided to bottle their own milk. They bought 1950s- and ’60s-era milk processing and bottling equipment from Midwestern dairies that were going under and spent roughly $1.2 million on their new facility. They deliver dairy products to markets as far away as Portland, ME, Nantucket, MA, and Albany.  Visitors got to sample a new flavor of milk: organic iced cappuccino.

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