by Emily Kaminsky
The old Watt Farm, on Snowbridge Road in Barre Town, got a new lease on life last year when owners Ted Russell and Josie Ritter worked with the Farmland Access Program at the Vermont Land Trust (VLT) to conserve and sell the 87-acre farm to Jon Wagner and Karin Bellemare. This was their first year of operation, as Bear Roots Farm, Barre’s only certified organic vegetable farm.
Jim Watt, a bachelor, was the last of the Watt family to operate the farm, at that time a dairy. After his death in 2001, his nephew, George Watt, who owns the adjoining property, executed the estate. Since no one in the family could take the operation on, the farm was sold to Russell and Ritter, farmers from Sudbury, in Rutland County, who likewise found themselves unable to use it. The farm had to be sold once more.
“Around Barre, so much of the farmland has been divided up into lots,” says Russell. “It’s such a beautiful farm [that] we wanted to see it stay as a farm. It was a dream come true for me to get Jon and Karin hooked up to that farm and keep it in production.” He turned to the Farmland Access Program, rather than a realtor, to accomplish that goal.
The VLT’s Jon Ramsay says he works on about ten such transactions a year. Gaining access to farmland that is at once high-quality and affordable poses one of the highest hurdles for farmers who, like Wagner and Bellemare, are just beginning, or who are expanding their operations. The challenge is especially acute for enterprises that need to be near Vermont’s economic growth centers—where land values remain strong even in the current economic climate. As more farmers age and more farms go on the market, the fate of their farmland represents a growing concern. That concern led to the 2004 launch of the access program.
“It was fantastic to be able to work with landowners who were motivated to sell [the property] to new and beginning farmers,” Ramsay said.
He recalls the course of events. The land trust worked out a purchase and sales contract by which it committed itself to buying the property in spring 2013 for $340,000. That arrangement gave VLT time to identify a buyer out of a database of some 275 farmers, which included Wagner and Bellemare.
For Wagner, 29, and Bellemare, 26, farming as a career was never a lifelong aspiration, but rather one that crept up on them during their time at Green Mountain College, the environmentally oriented liberal-arts shool in Poultney, from which they graduated in 2009. Inspired to work with food and soil by a friend who worked on the on-campus farm, Bellemare began growing seedlings in her dorm room.
“I guess farming kind of crept up on me, too,” says Wagner. While not a farmer, his father, a college professor who taught alternative agriculture, provided inspiration. Jon took courses in agriculture at Green Mountain but didn’t get his hands in the dirt until he and Bellemare moved back to his home town of Sag Harbor, Long Island. They started farming on his family’s property and then, for four years, on leased land. But Long Island’s soil, market and pace of life weren’t what they were looking for. When the Watt farm came up for bids through the VLT, they put their hat in the ring.
“They had been talking with me for about a year before the Watt property came up for sale,” VLT’s Ramsay said. “We were aware of their aspirations to get to Vermont.” Wagner and Bellemare’s proposal eventually won out over four other bids. VLT then worked on securing resources through the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB) and the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service to bring the purchase
price actually paid by the couple down from $340,000 to $155,000.
The mechanism that keeps the land affordable in perpetuity is called a conservation easement. “It’s essentially a legal deed that perpetually goes forward with title of the land,” explains Ramsay. The owners are prohibited from subdividing the property and selling off lots. Most commercial uses of the land are also prohibited; logging is allowed as long as a forest management plan is in place. Should Wagner and Bellemare wish to resell the property, they can sell it to any farmer for whatever that farmer is willing to pay. But, if they want to sell to a non-farmer, VLT has a first option to buy the property at its agricultural value.
This first year on the land has provided the couple with a mixture of fun, hard work, and a lot of trial and error. They’ve had about seven acres in production and have been successful in selling 25 community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares. They hope to sell 30 to 50 winter shares for a season that will start October 25 and run through early February. While they sold at smaller farmers’ markets this year, like Plainfield’s and Barre’s, they hope to get into either Montpelier or Stowe next year and establish wholesale accounts with local retailers, schools and hospitals.
“Sometimes you find yourself working for the farm rather than having the farm work for you,” Wagner says. “So we’re often trying to figure out how to change this or that to fit our lifestyle rather than running around like crazy people working 12- to 16-hour days.” But, with assistance from VLT and the Farm Viability Program run by the VHCB, the young couple are confident they will succeed in their enterprise.”
As for what’s next, Bellemare looks forward to getting draft horses, connecting with local schools, and doing farm tours. They keep ducks and chickens for eggs, but don’t plan on getting into meat production. She is particularly eager to establish perennial fruit trees and berry bushes.
That fits in with another plan the couple shared with this reporter: after seven years together, they will get married on October 4. And, In lieu of more conventional wedding gifts, they’ve asked friends and family for donations to plant 100 fruit trees and launch a berry patch.
So their story is about the future as much as the past. While the couple have their dream farm, it’s also a dream come true for Ted Russell and Josie Ritter. “It’s one of the best things I’ve done in my life, to have done that,” Russell reflects. “We’re really lucky to have the Vermont Land Trust and people like Jon Ramsay who work there, who make these things happen.”
It’s also a dream come true for the Watts. “I can say on behalf of the Watt family that we are all thrilled that it is still an active farm and not built up into houses,” says George Watt.