As Vt. Farmers And Food Entrepreneurs Age, State Wants To Ensure Their Businesses Stay Local

Oct 27, 2017

Nearly a third of Vermont farms are run by someone over age 65, and according to a recent study by Land for Good, 91 percent of them don’t have someone younger ready to take over.

Other local food industry entrepreneurs are also aging, and many don’t have an exit strategy for their company when they retire.

That’s a concern to state officials who want to ensure food manufacturers not only stay successful but stay in Vermont.

They have a good reason for concern. Local businesses that create gourmet cheeses, maple syrup, spicy salsas, honey-infused gin and Vermont's many popular craft microbrews are a major part of the state’s economy. They and other tasty Vermont products bring in $189 million a year in gross sales, according to the state.

Farm to Plate is Vermont’s 10-year plan to support and grow the state’s food economy. Officials working on the plan say it is vital to help local farms and food companies when they first start out, but also as they transition from one owner to the next so the state doesn’t lose them.

"We have an aging population in Vermont and we have aging entrepreneurs who are so involved in working in their business [they are] not looking at what that exit might look like." — Janice St. Onge, Flexible Capital Fund

Janice St. Onge is president of the Flexible Capital Fund, a financing arm of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund that provides money for businesses in the food system, forestry and clean technology sectors. She said business owners are not thinking enough about what will happen to their companies once they retire or move on.

“We have an aging population in Vermont and we have aging entrepreneurs who are so involved in working in their business instead of on their business and not looking at what that exit might look like,” St. Onge said.

That’s a problem, she said, because if companies don’t change and grow they often don’t survive. So she said it’s important that companies plan well for their long-term future, including the departure of their founders.

St. Onge was part of a panel discussion talking about exit strategies during the annual gathering of Farm to Plate members in Killington.

Lisa Lorimer, another panelist, founded the Vermont Bread Company nearly forty years ago. She said the Brattleboro-based business employed about 500 people by the time she sold it completely in 2014.

“To be perfectly frank, I was burnt out,” she said. “If you think about what we do at Vermont Bread Company, we deliver fresh bread to all the supermarkets from Maine to South Carolina between 5 and 10 in the morning every day. I mean come on, that’s crazy!”

Lorimer said she knew she wanted to leave the company, but doing it right – on her terms – took years.

For example, she wanted to ensure the business stayed in southern Vermont; she wanted her employees to be protected, and she wanted to make sure her company’s core values remained intact.

It’s a tall order, she acknowledged at the conference, but it’s doable if you take your time, know your company’s finances inside and out, and do your homework. 

“And there are resources out there to help,” she added.

Janet Steward, who operates Greenfield Highland Beef with her husband, asked a panel of current and former farmers and food industry owners about how owners can create an exit plan when they want to retire. The discussion was part of the Vermont Farm To Plate Annual Gathering this week at the Killington Grand Hotel.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

According to Farm to Plate Director Jake Claro, companies like Vermont Bread have helped the state’s food sector create 6,400 new jobs since 2009.

“Food manufacturing growth has outpaced overall manufacturing growth in the state,” said Claro.

He adds that as manufacturing growth has declined in the state generally, food manufacturing has continued to grow by nearly 40 percent since 2009.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that many food manufacturers are struggling to find enough workers, a common refrain among Vermont employers.

Claro said the state is working hard at getting the word out to high school students and other young people about the jobs available, but he said helping food companies and farms transition from one owner to the next is equally vital, so these businesses continue to stay in the state and employ local workers. 

Correction 3:16 p.m. 10/31/17 An earlier version of this story misstated the total annual local food sales as $10 billion (which represents all food sales in Vermont).  The most recent state figures (2014) for annual local food sales in Vermont was $189 million.