by Rachel Cohen
MIDDLEBURY, VT — On the morning of a day one week before processing the ducks, Keith Drinkwine walked out of his camper that he shared with his wife, Lisa, to the grassy area where their ducks were fenced in, and noticed that a weasel had gotten 70 of their 150 ducks. Earlier that season, the Drinkwines, young farmers who now live and farm on Flatlander Farm in Starksboro, Vermont, had received the second shipment of the 300 ducks they had ordered. Their postmaster usually complained about the smell and noise that the boxes of ducklings emitted when they were in the back of her truck, but these 150 ducks had been delayed in the mail. When the Drinkwines opened the package, they realized that all 150 ducks were dead – just a box of ducklings, “toasted,” as Keith put it. After the weasel got in, they were left with only 70 ducks to process of the 300 that they had originally intended to raise.
This was heartbreaking for the Drinkwines. At that time, which was late in the summer of 2014, they were in their third year of farming and were living in a camper on Lisa’s parents’ property in Monkton, Vermont. Keith spent most of that summer chasing goats around that were eager to show that they could out-jump the makeshift fencing. The small property that wasn’t really meant for farming had insufficient forage space for the pasture-based goats that had to be rotated daily. Ending up with only 70 ducks after spending thousands of dollars in grain and countless hours of their time raising the 150 made that processing season financially devastating. It almost caused them to give up completely, and they admit that it might’ve been smarter to quit then. Yet, they were foolishly determined, the Drinkwines said.
“You just have to love it,” Keith reasoned as he shared his reflections with me on that difficult season at Lisa’s parents’ house. We sat in their dimly lit living room. Lisa, in her sweatpants, striped long-sleeve tee, and neon orange hunting beanie, was curled up on the beige cloth couch with a knit blanket and one of the dogs, Olive. Keith, with his friendly round face, a full beard, and a subtle cartilage earring sat in a nearby chair with their other dog, Diggie, perched on the top of the chair behind Keith’s head. The two bounce back and forth about their experiences, hardships, and motivations. Farming, Keith explained, is “knowing something bad is going to happen. It’s just a matter of how bad and when it’s going to happen.” And since that rough season, they have had two much better years of farming.
The Drinkwines are part of a new wave of young farmers in Vermont and the United States. Based on the latest Census of Agriculture in 2012, for only the second time in the last century, the number of young farmers under the age of 35 years old is increasing. These farmers are highly educated, entrepreneurial, and unlikely to come from farming backgrounds. The Drinkwines commented that a few times each year, they get emails from young people who wish to move to Vermont to begin farming.
Young farmers are needed. The average farmer in the U.S. is 58 years old and nearing retirement; within the next two decades, two-thirds of the farmland in the U.S. will need to change ownership or it will be at risk for going out of production or being developed. In fact, according the American Farmland Trust, the United States loses about 40 acres of farmland every hour, which threatens farmers’ ability to provide sufficient food for the population. 77% of the country’s vegetable are grown in urban-edge farms that are under pressure from development. With less farmland devoted to food production, the United States will need to import more food from overseas, which according to the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), could be a national security issue.
According to a 2017 report generated by a survey of nearly 4,000 young farmers by the NYFC, an advocacy group dedicated to creating policies that support young farmers, access to land and student loan debt are the top two challenges for young farmers today. “I wouldn’t want to be going into farming now,” says Marjorie Susman, a soon-to-be retiring farmer at Orb Weaver Farm in New Haven, Vermont. Speaking about the next generation of farmers, she says, “They’re going to have to borrow so much more money than we ever had to.” Given the apparent disincentives, how will Vermont be able to attract enough young people like the Drinkwines to replace Susman and her peers?
Lisa and Keith both have full-time off-farm jobs – they always have. At the five-year mark, their farm is just about breaking even, but Keith said he has yet to pay himself through his farm. Unless there is some radical change to their business’ profit margins, Keith will still be working at City Market, a grocery store in Burlington, Vermont, and Lisa at Fletcher Allen Health Care, a hospital in Burlington for the next few years. Despite healthy growth of their business and their desire to eventually work on-farm full-time, the two don’t believe that their farm can replace one of their salaries. In fact, after their “almost-breaking year” when they lost the ducks, buying their current home was only possible because of their off-farm jobs. “Purchasing this farm had nothing to do with our farm,” Lisa said, indicating that without their off-farm incomes, their farm wouldn’t be where it is today.
Working Off-Farm is Necessary
On days when Keith works at City Market, he does farm chores starting at 7:30 in the morning. He moves and adjusts fencing so that the ducks can roam about on new grassy patches, works on his spreadsheets, and takes the inventory of the meat in his basement. At 3:00 p.m. he heads to work in Burlington, and arrives back at midnight, just in time to do a quick “well-being” check of the animals before going to bed and waking up the next morning to do it all again.
The Drinkwines bought their own property in Starksboro in 2015, thanks to their off-farm jobs. Their quaint but sizeable log cabin sits a bit back from the road, and except for the small wooden sign by their mailbox that reads “Duck Eggs,” it is not evident from the front that this cozy Vermont abode belongs to farmers. Inside, past the mudroom and modern kitchen, however, Nana, one of their goats, has temporarily taken over their dog Diggie’s crate as she heals from pneumonia. The Drinkwines’ house, with its small wine bar in the kitchen, a muddled home office, hay pouring out of the dog crate in the living room, and ducks waddling around outside, is the perfect dwelling for this couple that essentially farms part-time. For around 50 hours per week, Keith and Lisa are not physically at their farm, which means that they have to cram their farm work into the remaining hours of their week. “It’s just a lot…It’s a lot of juggling.”
Like Flatlander Farm, most small farms in the U.S. receive the majority of their household income from off-farm sources, and this is especially the case for the nation’s young farmers. In 2012, young farmers under the age of 35 had a 15 percent higher rate of off-farm employment compared to the 35-64-year-old age cohort. While farmers have regularly had multiple income streams from family members working off-farm full-time, young farmers are now more dependent on off-farm income for survival because of increasingly high land prices and the fact that they are more likely to have student loan payments. Respondents to the NYFC’s survey had an average of $35,000 in student loan debt, a reality that is unique to this generation of farmers that is more likely to get a college education. Additionally, a 2016 USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) Land Values Summary found that agriculture real estate values doubled between 2004 and 2013, and continue to increase. To deal with these heightened burdens, three-quarters of farmers interviewed in NYFC’s survey said that they needed off-farm jobs, and more than 82 percent of first-year farmers interviewed relied on off-farm income. Without off-farm income sources, the median Vermont farmer would lose $765 annually. For young farmers, who mostly have small-scale operations, farming is just not profitable.
In fact, it’s the financial and business-side of farming that has been the biggest learning curve for the Drinkwines – not learning how to raise chickens, for example. When they were just starting, they didn’t own a house or a tractor, and because they didn’t have any equity, they couldn’t take out loans to pay for the infrastructure that they needed like grain or fencing. To get farm loans, you have to have grossed around $30,000 or have demonstrated that you have 3-4 years’ experience managing your own farm. But to get to that point, without any equity and with student loan payments of around $700 per month plus other expenses like a mortgage and utilities, is nearly impossible without some good luck. For Lisa and Keith, this “luck” came in the form of being able to stay on their family’s land in Monkton for one year, but more than anything, it was the income from their other jobs.
“That’s really the only way that we’ve been able to farm,” Lisa says of their off-farm jobs, “Not because we’re actually making money farming.”
Taylor Hutchinson, the leader of Vermont’s chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition, and a first-generation farmer herself, says that she does not know anyone who just started farming without some additional source of income. She then clarified that she actually did meet one person who did this. That person maxed out his credit cards and took out loans to pay for the cost of his farm, but this didn’t last long, and soon after, he quit.
Taylor and her husband Jake both worked off-farm for the first three years owning Footprint Farm. They held various odd-jobs such as working at a bakery, working as a bookkeeper for a variety of businesses, working at other farms, and doing construction. Now, in their fifth year, they work almost full-time on-farm.
“We were just sick of working off-farm,” Taylor explained. When you’re spending so much time away from the farm, “you aren’t able to do a good enough job doing what you want.”
But they needed to work off-farm to avoid going into debt. The additional income also gave them the freedom to make mistakes in the early years when they were getting to know the complexities of farming.
Multigenerational Farmers Need Off-farm Income
Multigenerational farming families also share the need for off-farm income. John Tiffany, 21, is a 4th generation dairy farmer in Fairfield, Vermont, and he makes most of his money from working three nights a week at Leader Evaporator, a company that manufactures equipment for maple syrup production. During the 13-hour night-shift, John counts down the hours until he can get back to the farm. “There’s just so much you want to be doing when you’re home,” he says, referencing all of the chores and projects the he wants to do on the farm. Finally, around 6:00 a.m. he gets back home, and does some farm chores while napping intermittently throughout the morning.
When he was a kid, he would sometimes milk cows on his father and uncle’s operation at 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. before going to school “smelling like cow shit.” Even then, John knew he wanted to become a farmer. In 2015, though, due to volatile milk prices that made dairy farming in Vermont extremely unprofitable, John’s father and uncle sold all of their 160 dairy cows and ceased milking in their milking parlor that they had been using since 1996. Dairy families all over the state and the country were abandoning their businesses as the younger generation was uninterested in inheriting their parents’ debt. During this national crisis from 2013 to 2016, around 42,000 farms failed.
At that point, it would’ve seemed unwise for anyone to want to get into the business, and John’s high school classmates, none of whom went into agriculture besides his fiancé Cassie Westcom, 20, called him crazy, saying that he was never going to make it. Their sentiments, while callous, were somewhat truthful. On the property where John grew up and where he now cares for his 18 heifers (young female cows), a large collapsed wooden barn with dull, grey-blue chipped paint and ragged edges of wood splintering in all directions serves as a reminder of the likelihood of imminent failure that is ever-present for farmers.
When I asked why he keeps going, John replies, “It’s in my blood, I guess. I want to pass it onto my kids.”
Each month, three-quarters of his income from Leader Evaporator goes to his cows. “If I didn’t have these guys, I’d be rich, but I wouldn’t be as happy.” John drives around with no reverse gear in his truck, but says he’d rather buy a cow than a transmission. Cassie chimes in by saying that one of her professors at her SUNY Mooresville program for dairy farming once told her that the best investment you can make is in a cow because it’ll always produce something that can make you a profit. But today, with both beef and milk prices down, Cassie is unsure whether her professor would make the same claim.
Young Farmer Programs Face Funding Cuts
As part of President Trump’s plan to reduce the federal budget, the USDA faces funding cuts of 16%, and the Farm Bill faces cuts of about two hundred and sixty billion dollars over the next ten years. Every few years, the House Agriculture Committee is charged with renegotiating the programs of the nation’s most important agricultural legislation. About two-thirds of the funding in the Farm Bill typically goes to the food-purchasing assistance program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The remaining one-third of the budget is allocated among several special-interest agricultural programs, most of which benefit large industrial operations over small ones. Government incentives like those in the Farm Bill have shifted the country’s agricultural landscape by encouraging industrialization and consolidation of farms, which has led to the decline of small family farms.
Small farms, according to the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, are vital to supporting the demand for local food, revitalizing rural economies, encouraging biodiversity, and ensuring food security. While nationally, the average farm size is increasing, the average size of Vermont farms is shrinking. Most new farms in Vermont are between 10 and 50 acres, which means Vermont’s young farmers whose work upholds the continuation of small farms are unlikely to reap the benefits included in the Farm Bill.
In 2014, groups like the NYFC fought for the inclusion of programs to benefit beginning farmers in the Farm Bill. They were able to lobby for $440 million of the overall budget to be directed toward beginning farmer programs. These included microloans, grants for infrastructure such as high tunnels, and the strengthening of land trusts to secure land to be transitioned to new farmers. While an improvement from previous farm bills, the NYFC’s recent 2017 report highlighted the fact that the programs in the 2014 bill were insufficient in supporting young farmers. The report found that access to land and student loan debt were the top two challenges faced by young farmers, both of which were unaddressed by the 2014 bill. On the other hand, the 2014 Farm Bill expanded crop subsidy programs to a total of $24 billion, the majority of which benefited wealthy farmers and agribusinesses.
Since then, the NYFC has attempted to pass the Young Farmer Success Act (H.R. 1060) through Congress. This bill would allow attract young people to become farmers by giving them student loan forgiveness under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, an entitlement given to public service professions such as government workers, teachers, and nurses. Despite bipartisan support for this bill, Taylor Hutchinson, who works closely with the national chapter of the Young Farmers Coalition, says that this initiative didn’t really go anywhere. Priorities for education policy and funding have changed under new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
“It’s just not the right political environment to pass anything big,” Hutchinson claimed. “Everything is on the chopping block.” Instead, the goal for the 2018 bill is to just keep the existing funding in place.
Young Farmers Face Burnout
John Tiffany and Cassie Westcom sense that for young farmers in Vermont, there is little to look forward to. “There’s no looking up,” John remarks. “The future doesn’t look bright.”
Still, though, this soon-to-be-married couple who bonded over milking cows together in high school, has reason to be hopeful. Within the next year, a retiring farmer, Julie Walcott, will sell all of her cows to them, making their dream of running their own self-sustaining farm closer to a reality. Cassie looks forward to being able to sell their own products – at least raw milk and their family’s maple products – at farmers’ markets soon.
For the time being, John talks about working as much as he can off-farm so that he doesn’t have to take out loans for the farm. “Loans are what kill people,” he explains.
But loans are also what propel farmers forward, and allow them to transition to working more on-farm. Because they were able to buy their house with their off-farm income, as well as two “pieces of shit” cars, the Drinkwines eventually acquired enough equity to apply for a $15,000 farm loan from the USDA-Farm Service Agency (FSA). While applying for this loan was a slow-going process, it was also a game changer. Before then, they were essentially farming paycheck to paycheck. On the days that Keith would get his salary from City Market, he would drive an hour and a half to get ten bags of grain, the most that he could fit into his truck. With the loan, they were able to finance some equipment including a 3 ½ ton grain bin that cost $4,000 – an investment that they wouldn’t have been able to make otherwise, but one that has drastically improved their storage capacity and therefore their efficiency.
Like John, the Drinkwines have also learned to get by without going through the tedious process of applying for loans. They call their improvised duck house with is plastic sheet walls – a structure that did not require a loan – a shanty town. It’s nothing glamorous, but it gets the job done.
Young farmers in Vermont are scrappy. They are willing to “bootstrap it” by working part-time and full-time jobs, by living as cheaply as they can, and by scraping by on minimal sleep. And they are the first to tell you that they are not doing it for the money. John is eager to keep farming in his family despite the cautionary evidence of market prices; Keith speaks of his dream of feeding his community in a sustainable way. Their visions of what their farms could be, and knowing all the work that it’ll take to get them there, are what keep them going.
Yet how are their farms affected by the fact that they are often not physically there? Keith and Lisa say that if they were able to be on the farm more, they could produce more, and they wouldn’t be reliant on growing fewer high-end items and selling them at expensive farmers’ markets. Taylor Hutchinson says that when she and her husband Jake transitioned from being part-time farmers to being nearly full-time, they saw a noticeable difference in their farm. They had previously held off scaling up their operation, but in that transition year, they grew their CSA (Community-supported agriculture) from 20 to 70 shares. They are no longer embarrassed by talking about their farm because they know that they have had the time to build good systems.
In an ideal world, the Drinkwines would also love to work on their farm full-time – to live off the land and raise their kids there. “Every season we get through, I think we’re closer to that happening,” Keith says of their desire to work on-farm full-time. “But every season it also looks farther away.” Lisa emphasizes that, for now, it’s just not realistic or practical. They hope to start a family soon and are nervous about taking the huge financial risk that would be quitting their other jobs and forfeiting their stable salaries.
“It’s benefitted us in other ways but I haven’t paid myself,” Keith says of farming. Both Keith and Lisa are forthcoming about the fact that they have thought about giving up multiple times. It’s just a matter of staying focused, they say. But are determination and ambition enough to overcome the long-term financial instability faced by young farmers like the Drinkwines?
For Kalyn Campbell, who began farming at her college’s farm in Pennsylvania, the business challenges proved to be overwhelming. Kalyn ran the Family Cow Farmstand in Hinesburg, Vermont starting in 2013, and was also the Vermont organizer for the NYFC, the position that Taylor now holds. When Taylor first moved to Vermont three years ago, she didn’t know any other young farmers and was exceedingly lonely. When she was working all day on her own farm, there was no time to make friends, and it could be very isolating, Taylor explained. So, when she was invited to Kalyn’s gathering at Family Cow Farmstand, and saw a group of young farmers gathered around a bonfire, sharing tips and stories, but also just taking the rare opportunity to kick back, she beamed with excitement. This scene of camaraderie was what inspired her to get involved with the Young Farmers’ Coalition. After two or three years, though,
Taylor notes that Kalyn disappeared. She is not quite sure why Kalyn stopped farming, but she imagines that it’s because while many young people who get into farming like the work, they just aren’t able to get by financially.
On the increase of small farms in the state, Vermont’s Agricultural Secretary Chuck Ross says “This is a great story for our state…an increase in the overall value of agricultural products – this is how we can ensure our working landscape will thrive for generations.” Another way to view this trend, though, is to say that Vermont’s young farmers are hesitant to bite off more than they can chew. When they can’t make enough money from farming, they need to be off-farm for more hours, and their farms stay small. And when the farmers can’t scale-up — when they admit that their farm can’t go anywhere because they don’t have enough time or money — that’s when farmers like Kayln burn out. The promise that these small farms “will thrive for generations to come” is one that Ross cannot make.
Love Only Goes So Far
Every other Saturday throughout the winter, the Drinkwines set up their booth on the second floor of UVM’s Davis Center, which is transformed on these days from the university’s student center to Burlington’s thriving winter farmers’ market. Aside from a few wholesale accounts, the Drinkwines rely on the Burlington farmers’ markets to sell all of their products. On the Fridays before market, Keith rinses all of the duck eggs that they’ve collected during the week in buckets in his kitchen sink. They pack the eggs, as well as all of their meats – the slow-growing chicken, the different breeds of duck – into small wheeled coolers that go in the back of their truck.
On these Saturday mornings, vendors like the Drinkwines from small-scale farms gather in the plain academic building, but they only make up around 50% of the vendors. The others are prepared food providers and people who sell trinkets. Each market, the Drinkwines make 60- 70% of their sales to people they know by name. These customers understand why their chicken is better than the 99-cent-per-pound chicken that they can get at Shaws, the local grocery. But occasionally, people approach the Drinkwines’ booth, and are shocked by the numbers that they see on the custom labels.
“That’s really what you’re charging for ducks?” one man questioned condescendingly. “Good for you.” He says this as if Keith and Lisa were making a substantial profit on their sales… as if they hadn’t worked 80-100-hour weeks all year. People would be surprised to learn that the expenses of running Flatlander Farm are not far off from the prices that they see at the farmers’ markets. “They can look at my spreadsheets,” Keith insists. He wants to ask that man, “What do you do for a living? What is your value to the world?” Keith and Lisa do understand, though, that not everyone can afford to buy food at farmers’ markets – something they attribute to a government that heavily subsidizes “Big Ag” instead of the small farms like theirs.
For Keith, these interactions like the one with this man at the Burlington farmers’ market reinforce for him why he farms: to take care of his community; to feed his community with well- raised, sustainable meat; and to be able to pay Lisa and himself a livable wage. When he’s done with an 8, 10, or 12-hour day, and can see the impact that he’s made on his farm, that’s when he feels like what he’s doing is rewarding, that his life has purpose. John agrees. He justifies working 36-hours in a row at Leader Evaporator and on his farm by reciting the cliché, “If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.”
But the truth is, John works all the time, and farming is hard work. Love may be what keeps John in his barn for now milking his cows, and what keeps Keith and Lisa raising their ducks, chickens, and goats on Flatlander Farm, but love only goes so far. There are high land prices, student loans, mortgages, bags of grain, fencing, barn repairs, miscellaneous equipment – the list goes on as their pockets empty. At some point, we need to match the value that we place on young and aspiring farmers with adequate financial support for them. Otherwise, this may spell the beginning of the end for small family farms.
Rachel Cohen is a senior Sociology and Anthropology major from Middlebury College.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.
The photos included in the story were taken by the reporter.