Getting to Know Full Belly Farm (VT): EP72 | Show Notes
This is the Ag Engineering Podcast that rolls right into the details on tools, tips, and techniques that improve you, your farm, and our world. I’m your host, Andy Chamberlin from the University of Vermont Extension. And this podcast is sponsored by Northeast SARE. Thanks for listening. Welcome back to the show. And today we want to learn a little bit about how you got started farming, how you got into it, and what it took to build the farm from when you landed here on this property, to where it is now, five years later. So you mentioned earlier that this was a… Well, I’ll let you tell the story. All right.
Go for it.
Yeah. So this farm it was previously a Norris Berry Farm and had been an established kind of small fruit and vegetable farm for almost 30 years. And we took over operation in 2017. So we just completed our fifth season. My wife and I living nearby, and we both had farming background. I had worked for about 10 years on organic vegetable farms. I’m originally from Kentucky, I grew up in Kentucky and worked on farms there, but more like tobacco farms and stuff as a kid.
That’s an interesting topic for another time.
Yeah. And then, let’s see. I got interested in organic vegetable farming kind of when I was just in college and kind of actually dropped outta college to go work on a farm in Ohio and then moved out to Oregon. And that’s really where I have most of my growing experience. So it’s been a real difference coming to Vermont, farming in Vermont from where I was. But most of my experience in agriculture was in Western Oregon. Like in the Willamette Valley, I worked on a couple of different vegetable farms there for almost 10 years.
Yeah. And then I had moved to Vermont. Honestly, I’d kind of given up on the idea of owning my own farm ’cause I didn’t think I’d ever be able to afford it. And I had come to Vermont studying woodwork in a school here and I had gotten a job in a shop and I was kind of settling into that. I was doing some part-time carpentry work over at Lewis Creek Farm in Starksboro and that’s where I met with my wife. She had been working there for Hank for a few years. And so right after, we got married in 2016 and we were kind of doing various things on our own. We were running a food cart for a couple of summers, sort of a small scale thing, and I was running a little wood shop in my own. Right after we got married, we got married in October, we took a few weeks in Mexico and came back and then we were kind of trying to figure out what we were gonna do for the winter. And my wife was kind looking for work and noticed that this farm was for sale. We talked a lot about it, about wanting to own our own farm and run our own business. But it was pretty tough to see how we would get there financially. But we saw the Norris Berry Farm was gonna go up for sale through the Land Trust and we thought, “Well, let’s just go take a look at it. “Let’s just see what it’s like.” And we really weren’t expecting much, but we came to an open house and we just decided to jump in and try. We didn’t have much funding behind us at the time. I did own a house in Lincoln, but basically no equity and I just bought it with a Rural Development loan. And so we started, we came to an open house December 6th, 2016, the farm, in the winter, we couldn’t really see much of what was going on here, but we started it on a proposal. And over the next month we started meeting with the small business development meeting with the FSA, trying to figure out if we
would actually be able to get funding, starting to put together a whole plan. And we decided that maybe we could make it work if we could get the funding through the FSA. And also there were a lot of important things that made it work out. The Land Trust was, in this particular situation, they were actually purchasing the farm first. So the Land Trust was gonna purchase the farm from the previous owner because she really needed to get out right away. And then they were gonna lease it for a time period to whoever they selected. So we knew we could lease it for the first about a year and a half. Anyway, we got the proposal together and turned it in in January. We had an interview with them at the end of January and got selected. And we had started running the farm that March. We’d never even seen it without snow on the ground. And it was an established business. So that kind of go into how we made all that work ’cause there were a lot of things that came together that if one of those things didn’t happen, none of it could have happened. So working with the Land Trust was great. And the fact that they were purchasing the property and were able to lease it to us for a period of time, made that transition that gave us time to get all of our funding together and make sure we can run the place, get our feet under us here.
Actually make some money off of the land here.
Yeah. So we leased it for a year and a half. The fact that it was an established business, it was, I would say sort of in its later years of the business, but it established a good customer base. And so we could jump in the first year and expect some income. One other thing that was hugely beneficial, well, the previous owner was very helpful. We had a good relationship with her and were able to ask a lot of questions and so she really kind of guided us through a lot of stuff. And then also she had been hiring Jamaican workers for a number of years and there was one employee of hers who had been with her for, at that point, for 17 years.
Yeah. And he’s still working for us. This year was his 22nd year on the farm. I couldn’t have done it without him. Really, really helpful.
He knew how things were going.
Yeah. He really guided us through getting started here and knowing what to expect and the timing of things and all of it. So he was really helpful. I can’t say enough about I’m pleased to be able to keep him on. So he’s worked for us for the past five years now and plans to continue.
Mn-hmm. So that was something that… I mean, just all these different things kind of came together and actually made it feasible. So we started operating the farm. We took over all operations in March. And
we moved here in May. Like I said, we had very short amount of time to kind of get everything together, all of our funding. And so we actually did purchase most of our machinery from the previous owner, which was a lot of like older machinery stuff that was kind of left over from when it’d been a dairy farm, a lot of large old tractors, you know. And so not a lot of real specialized. I mean some things. So that was a challenge in our first years is ’cause we bought a lot of equipment that I’d say we regretted later, but there really wasn’t another option just because of the timing.
Yeah. You had to work with what you had from the start.
So that’s been a big focus in our first five years, is dialing in the equipment, replacing the older stuff, finding the funding and everything to be able to buy newer, better quality, and more specialized equipment. And we’ve come a long ways with that. So we leased the farm for a year and a half and we’re able to close and purchase it in the summer of 2018, which is a great, great feeling. Yeah.
And we’ve got most of our funding through FSA, we work with them a lot, also through VEDA, VACC, and then also Vermont Community Loan Fund has been really helpful. We got a SPROUT loan through them and so we’ve kind of gone every direction for funding.
We should get funding everywhere.
Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Actually the Land Trust even gave us a short term loan early on.
Yeah. Yeah. So all of that kind of came together.
That’s great. And as we were walking around before we were podcasting, you were showing me some of the old, crusty equipment that you’re using some of the new shiny Tilmor toys and how it’s all coming together and every step of the way every year gets a little little bit easier. You mentioned how you like to tackle a lot of your farm improvements yourself, whether that be building greenhouses, working on benches, irrigation systems, you’ve got some construction background. How do you manage the farm improvement upgrades doing it yourself and running the farm at the same time?
Yeah. So I tend to do everything myself for funding reasons often, you know. I just don’t have the money to hire out. So since we’ve been here, we’re working on the ninth greenhouse, basically that we’ve built, we’re building two right now, and I’ve done all those myself, or with the help of my employees, of course. And a lot of electrical improvements and plumbing, and like irrigation stuff, and I do most of it myself. I try to push those projects into the fall and spring and winter season when we’re not quite as busy, but it always runs into when we’re busy. For example, I mean this past year, last fall in winter and spring I was building a new propagation greenhouse, a new farm stand and doing a lot of other improvements, and everything’s getting done last minute, right before we open, right before we need it and so–
Nothing like a deadline.
Yeah. Yeah. It can be challenging to get it all done yourself all the time. But it’s saved us a lot of money, that’s for sure. And it’s allowed us to upgrade and move forward a lot more quickly than we would. We’ve kind of been developing a new part of the farm with all of our new high tunnels and our propagation house and all that, and we didn’t even have electricity there and that was a almost 800 foot run from the closest power supply. So just to hire somebody to come in and put in conduit and wire and all of that and do all the wiring, it was prohibitive. And so I kind of did it all myself. And I’ve had enough, like I said, building experience in the past to kind of have, I’m not a master of any of it, but I have enough knowledge of all of it that I can pull it off.
Yeah. How’d you learn to do the variety of tasks? Was it just exposure due to other experiences? Or did you have a dad or mentor to kind of teach you along the way? Or did you just figure it out on your own and watch a couple YouTube videos?
Yeah. All that. Yeah. Working on other farms and I did some carpentry work. I had a good friend that I worked with for several years in Oregon doing carpentry work on the side and he was kind of a Jack of all trades. So I learned a lot there, a lot of the electrical stuff, which has been really valuable. I feel comfortable with all the electrical work that I do. And then, I’m a little new to some of the like the YouTube and social media stuff. I don’t know. I didn’t really use that as much until more recent years, but I use it a lot now. Obviously a lot of information out there. So that’s great. And just trying to, asking questions, that’s a big thing too. I’ve never been afraid to like, I’ll call an electrician, I’ll call someone and ask questions ’cause most of the time they’re willing to answer. If you’re someone who have enough knowledge that they feel like they can kind of guide you through that last piece or whatever. I’ve always been willing just to call people up and ask questions. It’s really important because most people out there are willing to. And same thing with farming, with a lot of the… I’ve never been afraid to call other farmers, people who have been around doing it for a long time, get on the phone with people and say, “Hey, I’m struggling with this or that.” And like, “How are you doing this?” Or emailing to really just like communicating with people who have been doing things a long time. And you gotta ask questions.
Yeah. It’s always good to have good relationships with other electricians or excavators ’cause they know what they’re doing and it’s so great. So I guess when you’re asking farmers, you’re growing strawberries, I know there’s other farmers growing strawberries just a few miles away and there’s other large growers on the other side of the state, are you asking your neighbors potentially competition for help and guidance? Or are you calling those on the other side of the state so there might be more open to help?
Yeah. Yeah. When it comes to that sort of direct competition type of information I share a lot too. I found here in Vermont, most farmers are pretty willing to share. I might not ask certain questions that I feel like might be stepping over the line. And it is always easier to call somebody on the other side of the state. You don’t have to worry at all. They’re really open to sharing because there’s no competition.
Right. Right. Absolutely.
But also as we all know using like the Listserv, ask a lot of questions through the Listserv or calling Verne. There’s a lot of knowledge in the state.
I’ve found that for the most part, farmers tend, at least in the Northeast, are kind of all in this together. Let’s figure it out together. And a rising tide lifts all ships.
That’s a good mentality to have and thankfully at least the farming and community around us has, like you said, benefited a lot and shared a lot.
Yeah. And that’s something I’ve found in Vermont ’cause I’ve worked on farms in at least three, other Ohio and Kentucky and Oregon, and I never saw that type of community in other places. And you would thought so in Oregon. I mean there’s a real established vegetable growing history there, but that sort of like open sharing of information and connection that people have here in Vermont, I haven’t seen that in other places. it’s pretty special.
Cool. Well, I feel like we’re, I don’t know if we’re sharing all the secrets or just helping pass the knowledge with things like the podcast and my YouTube channel. We’re just letting it all out there.
So you plan to farm for your career, I take it. What does sustainable farming mean to you and what are you doing to keep going?
Yeah. That’s a good question, for us because like I said, talking about sustainability as far as our farming practices, I come from an organic farming background and I had to sort of like for few years kind of let some of my ideals put them aside a little bit, not too much, but a little bit just because we had to keep strawberries growing here and had to keep them viable or else we could not own this farm and strawberries being so challenging. So moving towards what we feel like sustainable practices for us has been really important as quickly as possible. And so a lot of that, I mean, real focus on soils is where we’re getting… As far as practices go, I think focus on soils is the most important thing. I mean, reducing sprays and reducing pesticide use is also super important, but the soils is where long term, that’s really what you’re leaving behind and making sure that the farm can stay an active, viable farm for long term and sustainable, it’s all about the soils. And so we do a lot of cover cropping. We’ve pretty much completely switched over from all conventional fertilizers to almost all organic fertilizers at this point in the past five years with small exception, but almost all organic fertilizers at this point. So the soils are a big focus for us and that’s the most important thing when it comes to sustainable growing. Now as far as lifestyle, that’s a whole other thing, ’cause as we all know, it’s challenging to maintain a sustainable lifestyle as a farmer, especially getting started when every dollar counts and every minute counts. I mean we’re working seven days a week, sun up sundown, and we all do that to get started, but I’m hoping and looking forward, we are hoping to be able to bring more focus on sustainability in our lifestyle as well. Which would mean, I mean, for us, I mean, we do have the benefit for us. The type of growing we’re doing with the berries in summer and the pick your own, we have a real spike in like early mid-summer, there’s really no cutting back on the amount of work we’re gonna be doing, you can’t even expect that, but we do take a lot of time in the winter. We’re not doing as much winter growing and
we’re not doing a lot of storage crops and stuff. So for us, it’s like finding, we have full time on and full time off. Yeah. Yeah.
And that’s kind of how we manage it. Some other farms can kind of even things out over the season and do a little less over more of the season, but for us, sustainable lifestyle is mostly trying to make sure that we can have some complete time off, you know.
But we have a strong focus on soil.
What are you excited about in your next year of farming?
Yeah, that’s good question ’cause every year is something new for us as we grow. One thing we’re trying to implement next year and I have a lot of hope for, is some new tillage systems. So we have fairly heavy soils on the farm. A lot of like clay and silt loams and even sandy loam soils like clay sub soils and stuff. And so we’ve dealt with, we’ve had a lot of problems with drainage and compaction mostly. This farm was managed with a lot of heavy equipment with no cover cropping or anything for many years. And so we deal with a lot of compaction problems and that’s something that we’re trying to improve. And we’re actually working on developing a system next year. So some new tillage equipment. We’re wanting to switch over to using a stone barrier. So for more single pass tillage, less time on the field. But even more than that, we were actually planning on developing a permanent bed system, like a controlled traffic farming system where you stay on the same tracks year after year. That’s something we’re trying to develop. And there’s larger scale farms doing this using GPS systems.
Fruits and vegetables. There’s people doing it. And on like row crops, it’s used more, but using GPS systems mostly, using like the RTK steering systems, which we’re not gonna be doing that at this point, but what we’re trying to do is using, so we do everything on raised beds anyway. And so actually developing raised beds, like permanent bed, controlled traffic system, where we can go in using, we can cover crop and then flail mow it and then create a bed in a single pass with a stone barrier and always maintain the same paths year after year and then as soon as it comes off replanted and then cover crop. Because what we’ve found is like we’ve done a lot of cover cropping over the past five years and it’s helping, it’s beneficial using like Sorghum-Sudan and tillage radishes to try to break up that deeper compaction. But as soon as we have a wet season and you’re on that ground again, we just set ourselves back. It’s like, if you’re on that ground when it’s even a little too wet with the clay, you just set yourself back so quickly. And for example, this year was very rainy in July. And I found myself trying to make decisions of like, I planted a cover crop, so that are gonna go to seed or there are some weeds still growing in there and they’re gonna go to seed and I want to get that mowed down. I wanna get that off before I have a weed problem with it, but the ground’s so wet for a month. Then I know I’m creating compaction there. And so I’m setting myself back every time I feel like. And so we’re trying to figure out how to start getting the full benefit of the cover cropping without this constant setback of creating
compaction in our heavier soils. So that’s something I’m really excited about next year and we’re gonna try to implement. I think there’s a lot of potential there.
Yeah. I’ve seen a stone barrier with the raised bed former right behind it. That is slick. And that unit that I saw also had drip tape, I think right behind it. I’m like, “Man, that is so awesome.” All in one pass. So you can incorporate the cover crop from before and it buries it and then it shapes it and then it drip tapes it, and it could even plastic lay all in one. I’m like, “Holy cow.”
So that’s the implement we’re looking at actually. It also has a fertilizer hub around it too. So you can be applying fertilizer, a single pass. It buries all that material. I mean, we use it for burying stones. We do have some fields fairly stony and so we do a lot of stone picking. So we’re trying to get out of that too. So in a single pass, ideally, if it works the way we intend, we’re planning on purchasing one of these for the spring. It would be in a single pass, we would be going from a cover crop to either a mulched plastic bed with drip tape or a bear bed for direct seeding and that’s the goal in a single pass, ’cause we just spend so much time in tillage and like I said, I just feel like we’re constantly setting ourselves back. Every time it’s hard to get ahead. Like I said, when we took over the farm, it’d been almost 30 years of vegetable production here without any cover crop use at all. So you can imagine the condition the soils were in. Ploughed in the fall and left bear and a lot lot of erosion, low organic matter, a lot of compaction. And so we’re kind of fighting our way out of that and we’re trying to stop setting ourselves back constantly with that tillage. Hopefully, we have a lot of hope for the system and we’re gonna start developing it this next season.
You’ve been here five years. You’re obviously leaning towards a better soil health systems and building organic matter takes time. But have you seen improvements in just the last couple years of your cover crop practices?
We have. It’s slow. Well, I mean the best soil improvements that we’ve seen, of course are in the high tunnels. That’s the easiest place to make improvements. What I’d say I’ve seen is in our heavier soils, if we have had it in a cover crop for a year or for a couple of years especially, that initial crop that you plant there and the initial tillage that you do, you just get so much better conditions in those soils. They’re fryable, they’re loose. You can actually work with them. And especially with these heavy soils, after a few years of growing and without a lot of cover cropping, then they kind of fall back. And so in our first years we were just having so much trouble. And then after we started cover cropping, we actually got into some new ground that hadn’t been in vegetable production and cover cropped for a couple of years. And those first years in that ground was just so much better than anything we had seen. Like, for example, our best strawberry year we’ve had was 2019. And that was in a field that we had taken out of hay production and cover cropped for two years and had applied a lot of compost and everything. And that season we had a crop that was, I mean, we could really be proud of. We sold 15,000 pounds an acre. We sold 45,000 pounds off of that field. And we couldn’t pick them all. We were having food banks coming out and picking just because we couldn’t even keep up on it. And so that’s where we’ve seen a couple of years of cover cropping just makes all the difference.
Also like given you a target to achieve again.
It’s not, well, I’d say a carrot dangling in front of your face, but it’s a juicy strawberry in front of your face. Just like you could have yields that you can’t pick enough of.
Yeah. And so we’ve now set up, we’ll see as we, a multi-year cover cropping rotation with our strawberries. So a minimum of three years out of strawberry production because we have a lot of land to work with. We have a hundred acres and it’s not all great. Some are lighter loam soils, like we are somewhat limited on, but we have enough land that we can take fields out for a couple of years and just cover crop before we plant strawberries into them. So that’s what we’re doing now. We’re trying to get two full years of just cover cropping before we plant strawberry crop in that field because we have seen the results there.
That’ll be nice. You do pick your own. How do you manage that when your strawberry fields are away from your farm stand? Are people driving down there, hiking down there? Or do you just have a field closed for that and then the rest is for wholesale picking?
We only plant strawberries in our fields that are kind of at the top of the farm, kind of more accessible. Some of them are a little bit of a drive, but we do have a good road all the way to them. We’re not planting in our lower fields that we can’t really get customers too easily. And then we always try to have a good parking area out at the field and we have a parking area at the farm stand. So it’s kind of all of the above. We have some people wanna walk and that’s great. Some people wanna drive to the field and park and that’s actually kind of what we prefer ’cause we don’t fill up our main parking lot. A lot of people just really like just being here. We have a beautiful location. People can walk around. We’re really pretty free and open to customers being on the farm. We’re pretty comfortable with it and people can really just walk around. And so a lot of people they want to. You tell them, “Oh, you can drive to the field.” “Oh no. We wanna walk.” But it does limit which fields and which parts of the farm we want to plant strawberries because it does need to be accessible to customers. And we have days of as many as 400 vehicles on the farm in a day.
That’s a lot of traffic.
It’s a lot of traffic. Yeah. Yeah. A lot of people to manage.
Yeah. But I mean that also it’s gonna push you in a direction to keep your roads maintained, keep things like, if you got an Offset Flail mower, you can trim those ditch banks and make the farm look nice, which just makes it nice for you to work at and leaves a good impression on your customers. So it just helps the farm image too also.
What fulfills you in this career?
I mean, I’ve always wanted to work for myself and even when I’ve worked for other people, I’ve always had side things. I really like self-employment and so just having the control over what I do when I do it and the seasonality and not always doing the same thing every day, that’s fulfilling to me. I’ve never been able to go to the same job and do the same thing day after day for months, years at a time. So really seeing the improvements on the farm, ’cause like I said, I mean, while there was a lot of challenges in taking over the type of farm we took over with, there was a lot of messes to clean up. It was an old place that needed a lot of work, a lot changing, a lot of practices, that I didn’t want to be sticking with here, and our heavier soils are a challenge that not everybody’s dealing with. And so starting there, it felt really challenging and overwhelming, but to see the improvements that we’re making now, to see the business grow, to see the customers love coming here, we get really great feedback from customers. So actually growing and improving and seeing the changes is really fulfilling.
That’s awesome. Well, one more question that is still on my mind. You mentioned you and your wife got married in October and then you saw a farm in December and you purchased it through the winter and immediately started farming that spring and have been just like building infrastructure and cleaning up this place and improving everything from farm stands to workshops, to building nine greenhouses like holy crap, that speaks a lot for the two of you. What’s a tip or some advice to another couple that you guys have obviously figured out, you must have a strong relationship in order to buy a farm and do all this and keep your head screwed on straight. Unless you’re on the brink of divorce, then don’t tell me.
No. Certainly not.
What’s working there that manages that stress together as a team?
Yeah. I don’t know if I necessarily have advice. It really comes down to individuals a lot, but my wife and I just really work well together. We were running like a small business together. Like I said, the food cart business, but we were traveling around and going to festivals and all that. So we had worked closely together in that way, but we’re equals, that’s a big part of it. We’re equals. We both have our roles and our parts of the farm that we take responsibility for, but we also work with each other across all of that. Really just work as equals and communicate really well. ‘Cause it’s been a incredibly stressful and overwhelming five years. ‘Cause we came into this with really, I mean, mostly the financial stress has been a big part of it. ‘Cause we came into it with very little capital backing at all and it’s all been loans. So that puts a lot of stress on a relationship, but mostly just we communicate well. We work well together. We work through problems together. If one of us is overwhelmed, the other one stays calm. it’s usually how it works. We trade that off. It’s a whole learning process together ’cause we’ve been working well together.
Do you just kinda like naturally divide and conquer? How do you choose who does what side of the business?
Yeah. We’re still developing that. It has kind of naturally developed. I had more background in machinery so I naturally took over all of the field work and the field growing. My wife does all the greenhouse management and she just really fit in all of that and really enjoys that. And then a lot of the stuff that’s not as fun, like running of the business, the bookkeeping and all of that, we’ve tried to just tackle it together. Yeah.
So we kind of just fallen into our roles mostly. My wife is a lot more organized than myself, I’d say. She’s a lot better at organizing and developing plans and systems. So a lot of that she’s taken on kind of developing our wash/pack systems and a lot of the ordering and just where there’s more organization needed. I tend to be a little more like head down, get the work done, focused on the job in front of me and I can accomplish a lot that way, but I’m not as organized and so we kind of both have our strengths there.
For sure. Well, thanks for opening up. Thanks for sharing to me and the podcast world about your journey, your farming experiences. We really appreciate you coming on the show and sharing all of that. So, thanks.
Yeah. Great. Thanks for having me.
Well, if others want to find and follow you and see what you’re up to, how can they do that?
Yeah, let me see. We have our website, firstname.lastname@example.org, and the VT is important ’cause there’s another Full Belly Farm. And then we are also on social media. I don’t really know how to tell you to find it ’cause I don’t really deal with social media. I know we’re on Instagram and Facebook. My wife mostly deals with that, but you can find us there as well.
Look for the Vermont version.
The Full Belly Farm. All right. Well thanks for being on the show.
Yeah. Thank you.
Thanks for listening to today’s episode. I hope you enjoyed it. If I can ask you or direct you to do one thing that is to go to the website for this podcast, agengpodcast.com, that’s A-G-E-N-G-P-O-D-C-A-S-t.com. There you’ll find the show notes. You’ll find links to the farmer who we chatted with today, as well as photos or videos from the call when I visited the farm. If you’ve got some feedback to share, my contact information is on there, or you can leave me a voicemail. And you can do that right from the link in the description, in the mobile app. You’re listening to this too. So go ahead and do that. Thanks again for listening and I hope you have a great day.