USDA, state programs benefit local farms
SHOREHAM — As anyone in Addison County knows, farming isn’t easy, especially for farmers who are new to the business. But a litany of USDA programs can help farmers get on their feet. In total, the Rural Development division of the USDA pumps $5 million-$10 million annually into Addison County, investing in farms, businesses and communities, according to Ted Brady, state director of the Vermont and New Hampshire Rural Development program of the USDA.
The owners of Champlain Orchards in Shoreham have used these programs to continually increase and improve their operations and grow their workforce to 45 employees. Bill Suhr, who runs the orchard with his wife, Andrea Scott, believes government programs like the ones his small business taps can pay off for the public at large.
“It’s a smart state investment on behalf of the taxpayer — they may see quite the return on investment,” Suhr said.
Brady pointed out that successful farming businesses also keep the land open.
“We’re happy Champlain Orchards has been investing in and improving the rural landscape in Vermont,” he said.
During a recent tour of Addison County farms sponsored by the USDA and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Suhr showed guests how his small business operates and cataloged the improvements he and Scott have made.
“We got assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (a division of the USDA) to put in an irrigation system as well as a wastewater pump station, using the EQIP program,” Suhr said.
EQIP, or the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, provides financial assistance for farms to improve their conservation practices.
Champlain Orchards also benefited from a multi-year farm labor housing loan that helps farmers provide housing for workers. Champlain Orchards borrowed $220,000 for 40 years with 1 percent interest.
Champlain Orchards is planning more improvements on the farm. It has been awarded a mini-grant of several thousand dollars to build greenhouses to extend the season for vegetable crops. The Natural Resources Conservation Service gave the farm loans for real estate and infrastructure improvements.
“We have a large warehouse that will become refrigerated — it’s just a shell now,” Suhr said. “The processing room, which has been insulated and plumbed, is being used.”
The 17,000-square-foot warehouse, which can hold 86,000 bushels, will be renovated in two to three years. A separate processing area is 6,000 square feet, with an additional 6,000 square feet of office space. The entire project will cost in the neighborhood of $1 million.
“It’s a large financial undertaking,” Suhr said.
An additional $75,000 grant from the Working Lands Enterprise Fund, a state program within the Vermont Council on Rural Development, is aiding in that.
Champlain Orchards found a friend in John Ryan, director of Agency of Agriculture’s Vermont Agriculture Development Program. Ryan, through an initiative funded by the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, was able to take the orchard on as a client and help the farm employ more efficient and conservation-minded practices. Ryan visited the farm every few weeks to meet with the staff to talk about ways to improve.
“He’d give us homework to work on between meetings,” Suhr said.
Suhr described the relationship between the Vermont Agriculture Development Program and Champlain Orchards as a win-win in which his business gets support and in turn other area businesses benefit as well.
“We do support other farms — we sell bulk cider to other farms to add value, and we buy fruit from other farms,” Suhr said. “So this program didn’t help just us.”
Champlain Orchards produces around 300,000 gallons of cider annually, and is seeking to increase production in the future.
It has also expanded its hard cider production. The farm recently developed a new ice cider — a sweet, naturally concentrated ice cider best served like a dessert wine. The orchard recently bought an 18-head bottler at an auction, replacing the five-head bottler that dated back to the 1950s. In theory, this will enable Champlain Orchards to quadruple hard cider production.
Recently the orchard has also incorporated high-density planting of its trees, a concept developed by Cornell University researchers. This practice, where trees are planted three feet apart, and rows are 12 feet apart, allows apples to be harvested more safely and efficiently, as workers do not have to continuously scale ladders, Suhr explained.
This dense planting operation was made possible through a Working Lands Enterprise Fund grant. Suhr said it was important to him to both produce and bottle his product in Vermont, instead of sending his apples elsewhere to turn them into a value added product.
“Now we can more efficiently run the hard cidery, keep food in Vermont and redistribute it economically,” Suhr said.
Unlike at many other farms in the state, which have been operated for generations by a single family, Suhr and his wife got into farming just 15 years ago, in 1998. Instead of being forced to figure out the ins and outs of the business simply on their own, the state was eager to lend a helping hand.
“The sooner a young business can educate themselves and be profitable, the better,” Suhr said. “Why would we wait 50 years to figure the darn thing out?”
While many USDA programs benefit dairy programs, Suhr said he hopes more are geared toward fruit farmers in the future.
“We are grateful for things like funding for greenhouses, but I’d advocate for more support for the fruit industry in the future,” Suhr said.