TUNBRIDGE — In December, Shona Sanford-Long visited Holstein Stock Farm just off of a scenic stretch of Route 110 that follows the First Branch of the White River as it winds through the valley’s pastures.
The farm was for sale, and she knew it could be exactly the location she needed to grow her new livestock business, Flying Dog Farm.
She was less certain she could pull together the money to actually buy the land. A few weeks later, she approached the Vermont Land Trust, which owns a conservation easement on a 60-acre tract of agricultural land on the property and was helping the former owners navigate the sale.
“It was just such a huge investment that I wasn’t able to do it on my own,” Sanford-Long said.
Sanford-Long was no farming neophyte. She grew up minutes away in South Royalton, where her parents have been growing crops and raising chickens at Luna Bleu Farm for about 30 years.
She and her parents started talking to others in the area about how they could transform the Tunbridge farm into a multifaceted community resource.
“We started thinking about a bigger community project there because it’s such an iconic farm and such a part of the agricultural history of the area,” Sanford-Long said.
Now, Sanford-Long is one of the women leading a new initiative on the Holstein Stock Farm that brings farming, solar energy, recreation and housing together on the property. The White River Land Collaborative, as the effort has been dubbed, envisions its community-based land ownership structure as a model that will help young farmers continue the region’s agricultural legacy.
“Thinking of this particular farm, it’s in such a central location: in the heart of Tunbridge and right on 110,” Sanford-Long said.
She and her mother, Suzanne Long, have been involved with Vermont Council on Rural Developments’ regional initiative, Our 4-Town Future, which brought together hundreds of residents from South Royalton, Tunbridge, Sharon and Strafford to envision their community’s future. In 2019, the group identified conserving “the working landscape” and creating a “regional agricultural network” as one of three guiding goals.
In February this year, Shona Sanford-Long and Suzanne Long started talking with Fran Miller, a senior attorney at the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at the Vermont Law School, and Sarah Danly, a South Royalton resident who was also involved with the Our 4-Town Future initiative. They wanted to see if they could work together to buy the 200-acre property and start a multi-use, community project that would support local farmers.
“We knew that this is where we needed to go,” Sanford-Long said. “There were other things we were talking about and in the works, and this just really felt like a very solid project.”
The four women now make up the collaborative’s Community Project Team, with Miller and Danly serving as co-directors. In April, the group became an LLC but plans to soon file as a nonprofit. Danly said the collaborative is renting the farm from the land trust for $1,900 a month — enough to cover the interest and insurance on the property.
“Because of that (4-Town Future) community process, we already knew this was a priority of the community. Land access is a big thing to do, and Shona saw that it was a unique opportunity to help multiple farmers and provide land access,” Danly said.
At first, they thought that they would have to raise the money themselves, which would mean pulling together about $700,000 on short notice.
Instead, they approached the land trust with a novel proposal.
Their pitch: If the land trust bought the property, then it could lease it to the collaborative and the farm could become a “community hub” for farmers and residents, where uses from grazing to hiking could exist side by side.
“We were talking with prospective buyers, with Shona, who is a young farmer. It’s hard to get into farm ownership when a farm is being sold. This farm is 200 acres,” said Vermont Land Trust regional stewardship manager Donna Foster.
In May, the land trust agreed to the women’s proposal and paid the previous owners $650,000.
“We think it’s exciting for the region. It’s potentially a great model for other communities to follow and something we’re eager to support and be a part of,” Vermont Land Trust spokeswoman Abby White said.
Since late May, Sanford-Long has been grazing her cattle on the farm. Her sheep have dotted the hill that rises behind a cluster of barns that the Howe family built over a century ago. Two weeks ago, one of her sows gave birth to now-rapidly growing piglets.
“There are so many different functions that (the land) could fill, and we already had the momentum as a community,” Sanford-Long said. “Everything really aligned.”
Under the land collaborative model, property will not solely be devoted to agriculture; Sanford-Long’s animals will share land with a planned solar array.
Norwich Solar Technologies CEO Jim Merriam said his company contributed an additional $70,000 to the purchase price for the farm that went directly to the previous owners. Although it is still navigating Vermont’s regulatory approval process, the company plans to install a solar array on a cleared slope on the property.
Sanford-Long said the solar array was “integral” to the collaborative’s vision for the land. In addition to the $70,000, the company will lease the land. Sanford-Long said that those regular payments would contribute to keeping the collaborative financially viable and help the community further combat climate change.
Merriam said his company is still at least two years away from being able to build the net-metering array.
In June, Merriam met with the Tunbridge Selectboard to seek the “preferred siting” designation that he needs to move to the next phase of the project.
He said that the company would like to build a 2.2-megawatt array, which would require about 20 acres.
However, Merriam said the capacity of Green Mountain Power’s lines may preclude such a high-energy project. Even if it overcomes that physical hurdle, Norwich Solar would have to win a state auction to be one of approximately four 2.2 MW solar projects. Since 2009, Vermont has hosted standard-offer auctions to increase renewable energy generation. This year, the state is soliciting over 12 MW of renewable energy and is accepting bids.
“You compete on the value of the solar; the lowest per-kilowatt-hour wins,” said Merriam.
He said a 500kW project was a “fallback option.” The smaller option would occupy only about 5 acres.
Merriam said that either solar project would go through an extensive Certificate of Public Good process and would have to be approved for environmental impact, aesthetics, feasibility, and effects on historical artifacts. All abutting landowners will be given the results of all studies conducted during the approval process 45 days before Norwich Solar makes its application.
“It’s a very open, public process with ample time in between each of those steps to allow anybody that has a concern to voice it,” Merriam told the Selectboard.
The board approved the array for preferred siting, and next Norwich Solar will move to get state approval.
Merriam said it has been “delightful” working with the town. “There was no ‘not in my backyard.’ It was civic responsibility. … They saw how energy and this farm and all of these things would come together to preserve what they like about the town.”
Sanford-Long hopes to be the first of many farmers and community members who will share use of the land. She said that farm viability and food affordability are often conflicting goals. When a farmer’s costs are lower, they are not under as much pressure to keep their prices high.
“Having a secure, long-term lease, leaving the farmer without a mortgage, helps a lot,” she said. Sanford-Long’s rent to the collaborative is on a sliding scale that takes into account her caretaking work. Sanford-Long is renting several pastures, barn space and part of the farmhouse where she and her husband live. Three employees of Luna Bleu live in other rented rooms in the house.
With time, other farmers may join them in the white farmhouse just across a covered bridge that spans the First Branch.
“Housing is such a huge shortage and need in this area,” said Danly said. “It will be available to the farmers who are farming that area as well as to farmworkers who are working in the area.”
With time, Sanford-Long said, the collaborative may add processing equipment and cold storage that farmers could share, and open the upper story of the milking barn as a community space where farmers could host workshops.
Additionally, the public will be able to access a trail network with expansive views over the valley from the ridge above the farm.
Jenn Hayslett is a Tunbridge resident and a member of the board of the Alliance for Vermont Communities, a local group committed to protecting forests and working farms. She is offering pro-bono consulting to the project and helped the collaborative launch its nascent fundraising campaign.
“So many organizations are really rooting for this. Many farms are changing hands, and we want to be able to use this as a model going forward for how young people can stay in farming,” Hayslett said. “My husband and I bought our place in 1988 as young folks, and it was very much of an agricultural town at that point. We really support this project as community members because we’re excited to see young folks who want to keep land in production in our community.”
Although the collaborative is only months old, it has gained several regional and statewide supporters. Its board of advisers includes representatives from the Vermont Council on Rural Development, Vital Communities, the Vermont Land Trust and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont.
Miller said the collaborative hopes ultimately to buy the farm from the land trust by March 2023. Supporters will need to raise at least $650,000 in less than two years; otherwise, the land will be reappraised and the price could climb higher. If successful, they hope to expand the collaborative model to more farms.
Miller added that a central part of the collaborative’s mission is “changing the way that land is viewed — not just as a commodity that should be sold to the highest bidder, but as a precious resource and part of the ecological system that people are part of.”
The collaborative will be talking to residents throughout the community to ensure that the farm is meeting real needs. That includes reaching out to Abenaki groups this summer through the Winter Center for Indigenous Traditions, an Upper Valley organization committed to preserving Indigenous culture.
“We want to take our time and do this really thoughtfully,” Danly said.
Once the chaos of the growing season is over, she said, the representatives of the collaborative will start one-on-one conversations with area farmers and residents in the fall and winter about possibilities for activities on the property.
Sanford-Long quickly rattled off some of the possibilities.
“Is there space for crops of some sort? Maple-sugaring? Agroforestry?” she proposed. “What fits well together, and what are the best fits for all the different ecosystems on the land?”
She said fruit or nut trees could share pastures with her livestock. Working together, farmers could stock a farm store with a medley of products that would draw in more customers and share labor across enterprises.
“Livestock farming, and many types of farming, can be fairly isolating. There are few people, and much of my work is just me,” she said. “Having many people working on the property can help with collaboratively thinking through problems and finding creative ways of doing things.”
On Wednesday, Sanford-Long drove water to her cattle in one of the farm’s elevated fields with views of evergreen-cloaked mountains on four sides. With the season at its busiest, she hasn’t had the time to lay down water lines. Her two dogs, Yap and Ruger, came along in her Ford. Some of her auburn cows sauntered toward the trough with their calves.
“It’s been really nice — the amount of support there has been,” she said. “We weren’t sure how people would see it. People are excited.”
Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3242.