Blog

December 29, 2016

By Chuck Ross, VAAFM

It has been a great honor to serve Vermont’s agricultural community as Secretary of Agriculture over the last six years. From Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, a weather event that both literally and figuratively re-shaped Vermont, to expanding Farm to School Programs, to improved Maple Grading Systems, to the recently passed Required Agricultural Practices that will help to protect the integrity of our state’s waterways for generations to come, the last six years have witnessed many changes for Vermont’s agricultural communities. Thanks to the commitment, leadership, ingenuity, and collaborative spirit of Agency of Agriculture staff, our partner groups throughout the state, and our vast community of farmers, producers, and agriculturalists, I believe we have made great strides over the years, and have helped to solidify a path forward towards a more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive ag industry in Vermont. While many challenges remain, I feel confident in the ability of this community to work together to overcome obstacles, pursue new opportunities, and continue to build upon our already strong foundation of agricultural quality, integrity, innovation, and tradition. 

According to Vermont Farm to Plate the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, 6,000 new jobs and almost 800 new establishments (farm & food businesses) have been added to Vermont’s farm, food, and forest sectors since 2009. I could write for days about exciting ag growth metrics and the many unique attributes of Vermont’s agricultural industry, but I believe the data presented in the report below will do a far better job of demonstrating the true, remarkable nature of our agricultural state. Agriculture lives at the core of Vermont’s culture, its heritage, and its economy. With an unwavering commitment to quality, integrity, and sustainability, Vermont is a national leader in many agricultural sectors, and world-renowned for its food and forestry products. As it has been for centuries, agriculture is an essential part of the Vermont way of life.

Read the report below for some highlights from the Vermont agricultural landscape in 2016. 

Click HERE to open. 

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December 29, 2016

 

George Cook, UVM Extension

While we don't hear about barn fires often, they do happen, and when they do, they can cause heavy damage to attached buildings, livestock, tools and equipment stored in or near the barn, not to mention the risks to human health & wellbeing. Taking a few simple steps can help you prevent tragic losses in the event of a fire.

Install a reflective E911 sign by the entrance to your farm/driveway, just like those bright green signs for road identification. Need info?  Contact your town office, fire department or rescue squad.

Developing a farm fire pre-plan with the help of your local fire department will make it easier for them to control a fire more quickly. You can download the University of Vermont Extension Farm Fire Pre-Plan datasheet.

On the form there's a place to provide your E911 address and a map of all the buildings, utilities, access roads and water sources on your property. Keep one copy in your files and give the other to your local fire department. Update this annually or any time anything changes on the farm.

Fall is a busy time, transitioning from outdoor work to more indoor activities. When checking your barns, farm shop and other outbuildings to make sure that they are properly prepared for colder weather, pay special attention to any source of supplemental heat as heating equipment is one of the biggest fire dangers on the farm.

Heating equipment needs to be properly installed and maintained to provide the warmth you want without increasing the fire risks. Old stoves may have cracks that can throw sparks, so be sure to go over that old piece and determine if is still safe to fire up. Maintain a safe space around heating units with no combustibles within at least three feet.

Stovepipes and chimneys are another common source of problems. When was that chimney cleaned last? Is it sound, free of crumbling bricks, with a safe liner? If you are unsure of any of these questions, it would be wise to contact a certified chimney sweep or mason and have it inspected. And do it now before the heating season really hits us.

Hot embers blown from burning brush, leaves or other refuse, often too near buildings are a fairly common source of trouble. Watch the weather and wind direction and never burn upwind of buildings. Visit http://www.uvm.edu/extension/agricultur for more information and stay safe this winter.

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December 29, 2016

Free Online Tool Helps Vermonters Compare Options and Save Money

By Seán Sheehan, Director of Outreach and Education, Health Access Eligibility & Enrollment Unit

It’s no secret that health insurance can be expensive. Full-cost premiums are more than many farm families can afford. But not having health insurance can be expensive too. It only takes one slip on the ice, one broken arm, or one hospitalization to cost an uninsured family thousands of dollars. The dilemma is not new. What is new, however, are two components of the Affordable Care Act that have completely changed the math for farm families trying decide whether to buy health coverage.

1) Financial help is now based on Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) with no asset test.

Eligibility for state health programs used to consider property and other assets, so many farm families – even those with low cash flow – were excluded. The fact that eligibility now focuses solely on MAGI means that many more farm families qualify for free or low-cost health coverage.

2) For many Vermonters, it costs less to buy a health plan on Vermont Health Connect than to pay the federal fee for not having insurance. The typical uninsured Vermonter can buy a Bronze plan for about the same amount that they’d pay in fees on their federal taxes if they don’t have insurance. Of course, Bronze plans aren’t the best health plans – subscribers could find themselves with significant out-of-pocket costs – but they do come with free preventive care and, most importantly, they limit the amount you must pay if you get sick or have an accident. Protection against bankruptcy is just one of the benefits that uninsured people miss out on when they opt to stay uninsured and pay the federal fee.

Now is the perfect time to sign up for health insurance. Vermont Health Connect is currently in its Open Enrollment period, which continues through January 31, 2017. This is the time when new customers can sign up for coverage and current customers can change to a different plan for the coming year.

Customers who are overwhelmed by choice and unsure where to start can check out the 2017 Plan Comparison Tool, a simple interactive program for estimating available financial help and weighing health plan options. The tool allows customers to compare plans not just by monthly premiums and deductible amounts, but also by estimated total annual costs. Vermonters can try it out by clicking on “Decision Tools” at https://VermontHealthConnect.gov.

After taking a couple minutes to enter age, income, health status, and expected use of medical services for all family members, the free tool presents the 20+ qualified health plans in order of estimated total costs, lowest to highest. The user then has several options for how to sort and screen the results, or to dive into plan details and links to the insurance carrier websites.

“We want Vermonters to have the information they need to find the right health plan for their needs and budget,” said Steven Costantino, Commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access. “We have the Customer Support Center to help those who want to talk to someone on the phone. We have an Assister Program to help those who want to meet face-to-face with a trained professional in their community. And we have a robust online tool for those who want to understand financial help and possible out-of-pockets costs from the comfort of their own living room or local library.”

After the user answers a few short questions, the Plan Comparison Tool immediately displays two key pieces of information for each health plan:

* An estimate of average total annual cost: this single-dollar figure takes into account the monthly premium, any available financial help to lower costs, and an out-of-pocket estimate for someone with the same family size, ages, health status, and other characteristics as the user's household;

* Risk in the plan: the cost if the user’s health care usage in a year turns out to be very high and the chances of having such a year.

These two pieces of information address what customers care most about. With the Plan Comparison Tool, consumers can quickly see and sort essential information on all available plans within minutes—and they can drill down for much more extensive information if they wish.

The online tool was developed by the non-profit Consumers' Checkbook and has won the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's award for best plan choice tool.

This kind of resource is very important because "a consumer just can't figure out: is a plan with the $200 deductible and a $10,000 out-of-pocket limit better for me than a plan with a $2,000 deductible and $4,000 out-of-pocket limit—and how about differences in co-pays, co-insurance, etc.?” said Robert Krughoff, president of Consumers’ Checkbook. “People don't know how much various health services cost or their likelihood of needing different services – and even health insurance experts can be hard-pressed to figure out which plan is best without a helpful tool. Vermont Health Connect is a leader in making this help available.”

Vermont Health Connect’s 2017 Open Enrollment began November 1 and runs until January 31. New customers can sign up online, by phone, or in person with an Assister. Current customers are automatically being renewed into 2017 coverage; they will also be able to call 855-899-9600 or click on the Renewals link in their VermontHealthConnect.gov account to report changes for the 2017 coverage year.

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December 29, 2016

By Ella Chapin, Vermont Farms & Forest Viability Program Director

This winter the Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program, a program of the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board, celebrates 15 years supporting the growth and success of businesses that keep Vermont’s working landscape in production. Since its creation, the Viability Program has provided business planning and technical assistance to over 500 farm, food, and forestry sector enterprises. Due to its strong track record, the program received two federal awards to expand the reach of these vital services – $100,000 from USDA Rural Development and $164,000 from the Northern Border Regional Commission – which will result in business growth and job creation in the agricultural and forestry sectors across the state.

Since the Viability Program began, twenty percent of eligible farms in Vermont have participated. A robust and interconnected network of organizations and consultants provide a business advisor, or in some cases a team of advisors, to meet over 1-2 years with enrolled business owners, including the Center for an Agricultural Economy, DairyVision VT, Intervale Center, Land for Good, Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, University of Vermont Extension, Vermont Agricultural Development Program, and Vermont Woodlands Association. On the Viability website, a map of all participants shows the breadth of the program’s influence, and a video featuring four farms – Donegan Family Dairy, Laughing Child Farm, Snug Valley Farm and Stony Pond Farm – highlights the value of the program to business owners: https://vimeo.com/189827461. 

“We now know what it costs to grow an animal, produce an animal and get it to market. I think we would still be floundering and guessing if we hadn’t done the Farm Viability Program,” says Ben Nottermann, who raises beef and pork with his parents at Snug Valley Farm in East Hardwick. Emily Donegan, who milks 30 organic cows with her husband at Donegan Family Dairy, a nine-year-old business in Charlotte, believes “the best part of the program was to have a time and a place to flesh out ideas and have the support to do that.”

The Viability Program can be designed to meet any business’ needs, including businesses of any scale or production type. Farms that have used the program to expand and grow operations or plan for ownership transitions include fruit and vegetable growers like Jericho Settlers Farm, Flack Family Farm, Champlain Orchards and Harlow Farm, dairy farms including Rainville Dairy in Highgate and Centerview Farm in Enosburg, and organic dairies and on-farm dairy processors including Elysian Fields, Kimball Brook Farm, Jasper Hill Farm, Bonnieview Farm and Orb Weaver Farm.

Year after year, business owners report significant increases in their management skills as a direct result from working with their Viability business advisor. These include financial analysis and bookkeeping skills, greater abilities to plan for business investments, improved success in accessing capital, and strategic planning. For example, 66% of 2015 participants report being highly skilled in strategic planning after program completion, up from 6% before the program.

The services offered by the Viability Program have had tremendous impact on Vermont’s economy: Viability participants report an average increase in gross income of 15% and an average increase of net income of 35% in the year following the completion of their business plan. While all enrollees receive at least one year of business planning services, about 53% go on to receive a second year of services; those who do report an average increase in gross income of 30%.

“The Viability Program is a model looked to from around the country for how to provide assistance to the businesses that support the landscape, and we’re lucky to have it here in Vermont,” says Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross. In 2008 and 2013, the Viability Program hosted the National Farm Viability Conference in Middlebury, Vermont, each time bringing together over 200 professionals who work to improve the viability of farm and food businesses across the US. A third conference is planned for May 2017 in Albany, New York.

The Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program provides business planning, technical assistance, and ownership transfer planning to farm, food, forestry, and forest products businesses. For more information please visit www.vhcb.org/viability.

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December 2, 2016

By Cheryl Herrick, UVM

On Monday, November 28th, the UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture celebrated the launch of a new research project to assess the feasibility of using wool from Vermont sheep as an insulation material, and for other building and household products.  The launch event was hosted by collaborator Open View Farm located in New Haven, Vermont and home to a flock of Tunis Dorset ewes. This exploration of a value-added product hopes to provide sheep farmers with new sources of revenue, and to add to the availability of environmentally friendly products for the building trade. The project has been made possible by a Value-Added Producer Grant from USDA Rural Development and support from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.

From 2007 to 2012 the number of sheep farms in Vermont increased 27%, and the number of sheep increased by 35%. However, for a variety of reasons, many sheep farmers have struggled to turn a profit.  At the same time, growing interest in natural non-toxic materials as insulation for buildings could provide a market for raw wool. Insulation made from wool is already produced in Europe and in locations in the western United States.

“The plan is to identify possible wins all around – for consumers interested in using a locally produced item to make their houses more comfortable and energy-efficient, for environmentally conscious builders, and, especially, for sheep farmers in Vermont and the region.  This could be an answer to the wool collected from Vermont’s sheep which is currently lacking such a value-added market channel,” says Suzy Hodgson of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Kimberly Hagen, grazing specialist at the Center for Sustainable Agriculture, says that shearing sheep regularly is part of maintaining a healthy flock but much of the wool collected does not have a ready market. This additional revenue stream for sheep farmers could provide a more viable business for them.

“Anytime the Agency of Agriculture can help farmers find a market for a low-value product, it’s a good day,” said Alex DePillis of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.  “In this case, the minimally processed wool would become insulation that keeps Vermonters warm in their homes.  We look forward to working collaboratively with farmers, builders, and organizations that serve the building industry, such as Efficiency Vermont and the Vermont Technical College, to create strategies for getting wool-based insulation to market.” 

The research project team includes Kimberly Hagen and Suzy Hodgson, UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture; Anna Freund of Open View Farm; Alex DePillis, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets; Deb and Ed Bratton, Vermont Fiber Mill; David Ritchie, Green Mountain Spinnery; Alex Wilson, Building Green; Andrea Murray, Vermont Integrated Architecture; Ben Graham, New Frameworks; and Dave Martin, Settlement Farm.

The work will culminate in a feasibility report, which will be made available to the public on the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture site at http://www.uvm.edu/~susagctr/?Page=whatwedo/projectsresearch/wool_project.html.  

For more information about this wool research project, please contact Kimberly Hagen, 802-522-6729, kimberly.hagen@uvm.edu.

About UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture
Established in 1994, the UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture provides timely information to Vermont communities and the UVM campus.  Center staff conduct innovative research, support the development of promising practices, cultivates partnership, and inform policy to advance sustainable food and farming systems

University of Vermont Extension, and U.S. Department of Agriculture, cooperating, offer education and employment to everyone without regard to race, color, national origin, gender, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, and marital or familial status.  This institution is an equal opportunity provider.

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