2016 Projects, Reports and Updates

January 2nd, 2017

2016 was a busy year! We completed several research projects, helped write 5 successful USDA Value Added Producer Grants, and continued to work directly with farms one-on-one on business planning and market development.

If you are interested in growing elderberries, gaining a better sense of the cost of distribution, understanding the need and desire for aggregation, storage, and distribution in the North Country, North East Kingdom, and Belknap County, NH here are the reports to download!

For a quick summary:

  1. Our Growing Elderberries: A Production Manual and Enterprise Viability Guide for Vermont and the Northeast demonstrated elderberry has good potential in our region, but to date yield has varied so greatly, and so frequently comes in below the grower’s desired yield that it is critical folks focus on their yield, then develop their price points based on their yield, and ensure a market at their price points, or improve yields in order to ensure their operation’s feasibility before investing. Form our research we have found that most operations could achieve a 10 yr or better return on investment if they can achieve an average yield of 4.5 pounds per bush and a $4 per pound price point.
  2. The CAE NVDA Storage and Distribution Report for Local Food in the Northeast Kingdom provides a great pyramid visualizing the stages of business or “distribution readiness” which delineates the pros and cons of different methods of transportation along with consideration of the capital expense (see page 11). And the CAE NVDA study, the NCIC Storage, Aggregation and Distribution Report for Local Food in the North Country and the LRAC Local Foods Market Assessment provide a “communication tool” list of contacts to help connect those who said they were interested in collaboration on storage, distribution and/or aggregation, and those interested in sourcing local (see tables in the appendices).
  3. The NVDA Agricultural Transportation Feasibility Study provides key guidance on a) the capital and operating costs one needs to factor in when considering transportation expenses. b) the pros/cons of owning vs leasing: one should definitely consider leasing vs owning if you are traveling more than 15,000 mi/yr or your total cost of ownership (operating costs + capital invested) are greater than $1.30/mi) (see page 6).  c) a comparison of VT vs national fleets (national small scale truck fleets average $0.78/mi, whereas VT small scale truck fleet operators average $1.30/mi (see page 16); and d) a handy margin matrix to help readers gain a sense of how much value a truck would need to be carrying depending on what rate the shipper was charging for its service in order to cashflow. For example, a shipper going from Hardwick to Boston charging a 2% margin would need to have $35,700 worth of product on the truck to cashflow (assuming a $1.30/mi cost to break even based on VT average), whereas if they were charging a 15% margin the truck would only need to have $4,670 worth of value on the load in order to break even (see page 30).

Spring 2016

March 28th, 2016

What does El Nino mean to your business? To my business it meant: a lot of travel! We had virtually no “snow days” this year. Without the need to reschedule, and lots of folks ready to work on their business plans, that meant lots of travel! It was quite refreshing to be able to accomplish so much and not have to worry about the roads. I did miss the snow, we organized our first ever NOFA-VT Cross Country Ski Day, to be held at Strafford Nordic Center on a working organic dairy farm, but both the original date (2/18) and the back up date (3/10) were a no-go because of no-snow. So, at least we made it so far as organizing the event, next year we will see if we have snow to proceed with holding it!

In addition to business planning with farms from Maine, Mass, New Hampshire, and Vermont, 2015-2016 has brought some additional new interesting updates and projects. For example, I am working with my first Quebec producer! This is exciting and heart-warming to me, having a way to connect with my roots! Le Lapin de Stanstead is a rabbit producer based in my hometown of Stanstead, Quebec. They currently contract with 8 farms to raise and process 3,000-3,500 rabbits per week for markets across Canada and the eastern US. All the processing and value added production are done on-site in Stanstead, right next to Autoroute 55 at the Stanstead-Derby-Line border crossing! They are seeking to expand their production and establish contract growing relationships with VT and NH producers given the processing plant is right there and they service an American as well as Canadian clientele.

As for research projects, the  Elderberry Production Guide for Vermont and Northern New England that I have been collaborating on with UVM Extension will be out soon. We held a wonderful Elderberry Intensive at the NOFA-VT winter conference which drew a crowd from as far as NY, Quebec and ME! An article we wrote re-capping the intensive will be published in the upcoming NOFA-VT Notes newsletter and I will post it when it comes out. We will be hosting two more elderberry workshops this summer as part of the project. I attended a workshop in Lisbon Falls with the University of Maine Extension for their Elderberry growers and that was great. It was wonderful to meet the Maine growers and the U Maine service providers and feel such camaraderie and synergy. Very exciting to see that relationship evolve!

In addition to the Elderberry project, we recently kicked off the UNH Department of Biological Sciences’ Commercial Hardy Kiwi Production Feasibility Study, and I have been working on two storage and distribution projects: The CAE Storage and Distribution Report for Local Food in the Northeast Kingdom, which is part of a substantive five year update to the Northeast Kingdom Regional Food System Plan; and the Storage, Distribution, and Aggregation Report for Local Food in the North Country for NCIC.

For the NOFA-VT 2016 Winter Conference, I participated in a panel on Sustainable Marketing and how to analyze and spot trends. If you are interested in staying current on trends in the food industry, Mary Peabody of UVM Extension offers a free annual webinar that I highly recommend. Mary gathers information from a variety of sources and condenses it into a one hour session. A great way for you to glean a lot of info without having to spend your own time and resources doing the research! If you would like to follow her 2016 webinar, you can do so here: Consumer Trends Webinar

My final recap for this posting will be the work we are doing for livestock production in Vermont and New Hampshire. Over the course of working with several livestock producers, I continue to find that on average, the cost of production for livestock in our region is higher than the rest of the country, and yet retail and wholesale price points for the product often do not cover break-even let alone profit. We are naturally in an environment limited by geographic (hilly, rocky terrain) and climate constraints (winter) that make our costs of production higher, however, are there opportunities for us to optimize this, even with our constraints? Genetics, winter feeding… are there tools and techniques to make us as good as we can be? And, then, are there ways to begin educating the consumer about our cost of production to begin cultivating a culture of supporting our true cost of production and a sustainable livestock industry in our region? Sarah Flack and I gave an introductory presentation on this at the 2016 Vermont Grazing & Livestock Conference, and a link to our presentation can be found here: Livestock Production Benchmarks in Vermont

Cheers to a fulfilling and productive 2016!



Spring 2015

June 9th, 2015

How fast a year can go. It feels like the world is whirring at an ever increasing rate, and thus here we are again, time for an update. In addition to business planning, the past year has included several projects: Charlene Andersen and I recently wrapped up the Boscawen Shared Used Commercial Kitchen Feasibility Study for the Boscawen Agricultural Commission, Jeff Roberts and I authored the NCIC Action Plan for Agriculture and Food System Development for northern New Hampshire, Vermont and western Maine, and two additional studies I was working on Vital Communities’ 2014 Upper Valley Market Assessment and Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets’ Market Study: Consumer Valuation of Meat Processing have been finalized and published.

rose and dad

Rose & Rebecca Brown, Executive Director Ammonoosuc Land Trust

In the past month we have seen the 2014-15 round of VHCB Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program farm business planning wrap up, the 2015-16 season kick off, and the 2015 USDA Value Added Producer Grant announcement made, with applications due July 7th… June is a blur!

In May Working Lands announced funding for the Development of Commercial Elderberry Production in Vermont, a research project I am very excited about. Our goal is to assess the commercial viability of producing and marketing elderberries in Vermont. Our hope is that elderberries may provide a way to mitigate risk, while creating an opportunity from, climate change because elderberry plants can improve the functionality of buffer zones while also producing an income bearing crop, thus optimizing the financial and environmental sustainability of a farm’s landbase while planning for the increasingly unpredictable weather patterns headed our way. Our project team includes Ginger Nickerson, Todd Hardie, John Hayden, David Fried, and Guido Mase.

Farm business plans are at the heart of what I do and I have been honored to work with farms this past year from Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.  Looking forward to this year’s crop and all that 2015 will bring.

Happy Spring!




Spring 2014

May 9th, 2014

Spring is finally here.  We had a long winter this year.  Lots of snow, which was nice, but I am looking forward to the flowers blooming, and some sunshine!  This winter was full of ups and downs.  The ups were quite exciting, I was invited to present at the NOFA-VT Winter Conference for the first time.  My workshop was titled “Market Research: How to Assess Opportunities.”  It was quite fun and I was pleased to see that the class almost reached maximum capacity with 37 out of the 40 workbooks we printed, spoken for.  You can download the workbook here.

rose and dad

Rose & Dad

Unfortunately, the downs were that during my workshop my father was rushed to the hospital back home in Quebec. He spent the next two months in hospital and passed away at the end of March.  I spent much of the winter dodging snow storms rushing back  and forth to see him, planning trips to farms in the Northeast Kingdom as a way to get work done while visiting.  In a whacky turn of events, the week-end my father passed away, I was en-route to see him while heading even further up the road to attend my Aunt Marian’s funeral in Brockville, Ontario.  She died suddenly a week before Dad, on St. Patrick’s Day.

So, it’s been a pretty heavy winter, but some bright lights are on the horizon: Jeff Roberts and I are wrapping up our NCIC Rural Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge Report, and Rebecca Brown and I are putting the finishing touches on the Ammonoosuc Conservation Trust Keep Growing Market Demand Study.  Both of these have exciting implementation steps being recommended so be on the look-out for the published reports!  The Vital Communities Agricultural Economy Needs and Markets Assessment study is also well underway and it is very fun to note that Nancy LaRowe, of Hogwash Farm has been hired as our lead interviewer!  Go Nancy!

April saw the wrapping up of most all of the 2013 business plans for Farm Viability and we are now getting 2014 farms underway.  On that note, I just received a call from an aspiring farm in Wyoming looking for business planning and recently completed work with my first farm in Maine and two farm projects in Massachusetts.  Farm Viability is getting around!

Have a great spring and happy summer.

Fall 2012

November 7th, 2012

Boy, this year has flown by.  I spent the summer working with NOFA-VT on the Farm to Institution Report, Scaling up Vermont’s Local Food Production, Distribution, and Marketing, a very exciting project to document and analyze the statewide institutional demand and supply chain infrastructure for local produce and eggs with the goal of increasing movement of local foods through the institutional marketplace.

In addition to the NOFA project I was busy on several business plans with dairy farms in the North East Kingdom through the UVM Extension North East Kingdom Dairy Viability Program that was funded by USDA Rural Development.  I was also working on business plans and feasibility studies with VHCB farms and with Field To Table, a Massachusetts based farm viability program.

I started on two new research projects, a feasibility study for a commercial scale grain mill with UVM Extension, and a feasibility study for a value added dairy plant for the South Hero Land Trust.

This coming Saturday I am joining Ela Chapin of VHCB, and Diane Bothfeld of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, on a panel about the value of business planning at Senator Leahy’s 16th Women’s Economic Opportunity Conference and this coming Tuesday I am hosting my first ever webinar with WAGN of UVM Extension to present a workshop on the basics of writing a marketing plan.

It’s been a busy and invigorating year so far.  Looking forward to Thanksgiving!