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‘Go with your gut’: Vermont dairy farmer transitions farm through successor program

Progressive Dairyman Writer Audrey Schmitz Published on 10 September 2016
Matt Deome of Montrose, PA

Tears were shed as Joan Wortman watched each one of her Milking Shorthorn cows sell from Green Acres Farm in South Randolf, Vermont. Every single cow was born on the farm and was part of her close-knit family.

“The hardest part is letting the cows go and realizing all of my children have been put up for adoption and are all scattered in the wind,” Wortman laments. “You just don’t know what has happened to them. The hard part has been to just take a deep breath and realize they are gone.”

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Eight years ago when Wortman’s mother passed away, running the farm became her responsibility. During that time Wortman and her husband, Craig, both 63, realized they were getting older and it was becoming harder to physically do everything while also working their full-time jobs in town.

After fighting an uphill battle for many years and not wanting to see the farm go to pieces, Wortman began looking for a successor.

“What I have told people is, ‘Yeah my husband and I could have held on a couple more years, but all it would take is one little accident to make getting rid of the farm be mandatory instead of an option,’” Wortman explains.

“You know, if I broke a leg we would be up a creek. There would be no way we could continue farming. And instead of finding the successor we want, it would have been an immediate cow auction and farm auction.”

According to a report published by the American Farmland Trust, farmers like Wortman who are age 65 and older, own or manage nearly 30 percent of the farms in Vermont. Ninety-one percent of older farmers do not have a young (under 45) farm operator working with them.

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While this does not mean these farmers don’t have a succession plan, it suggests that the future of many of these farms is uncertain.

Wortman’s advice to the older generation of farmers is to be prepared and to start looking early. She says a farmer will have more choices and a say in the fate of his or her farm by being able to hand-select a successor.

Unsure of how long it would take, Wortman got involved with the Vermont Land Trust successor program and sold her farm’s development rights. From there, the Vermont Land Trust took total responsibility, hosting two on-farm open houses in September and creating a detailed application for prospective buyers to fill out.

Around the same time, Matt Deome, 22, of Montrose, Pennsylvania, and his mother were searching Vermont dairy farms for sale online. They came across Green Acres Milking Shorthorn farm for sale on the Vermont Land Trust website.

“I couldn’t make the open house due to a dairy show, so we sent a friend up in Vermont to take some pictures and get a lay of the land for us,” Deome says. “Those convinced me to pursue the place more after that.”

Deome decided to try his luck and submitted his application and proposal for the farm. Out of all the applications, Wortman selected three finalists for face-to-face interviews, one of them being Deome. In December, Deome visited the farm for his interview, met with Wortman and shared with her his plans for the farm.

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Wortman was looking for someone who would continue dairy farming. When Deome visited, she liked the fact that he was young with lots of years ahead of him to farm.

“You could tell this fella just works his tail off and this is his dream. There are not many young people that dream of having a farm,” Wortman confesses. “He just fit, and it felt right. Sometimes you just go with your gut.”

Deome recalls how excited and scared he was when he received the phone call and news that he had been selected out of all the applicants to purchase the farm. Although he would have to uproot his own farm and move eight hours away, he knew he had great people around him to help him take off.

“We were very excited and we knew that it was going to be a long haul, but we were committed and we pushed our way through,” Deome says.

Deome visited Wortman at the end of March and she introduced him to the neighbors, milk cooperative and people she bought feed from. Then in the middle of May, Wortman held her dispersal sale. Her cows left over a period of 10 days and on the last day Deome started moving his herd in.

Green acres herd dispersal sale

Over the course of three days, 100 of Deome’s cows filled three pot-bellied trailer loads and rode eight hours from Pennsylvania to their new home in Vermont.

“The barn was never empty. The milking machines were turned on every day because I had a few stragglers of mine that were still there,” Wortman explains. “Then their cows started coming in so we were able to never miss a beat with milking.”

The hardest aspect of moving for Deome was adjusting his herd to the new farm procedures.

“In the place I was renting originally in Pennsylvania, my cows had to be in the tiestall barn all the time,” Deome recalls. “Out here it is set up for rotational grazing so it took my cows awhile to get used to being out on pasture.”

Despite the challenges, Wortman and her husband were at the farm every day for the first week to help make sure the cows got out to the pasture fine. Since then Wortman has helped less, but still regularly lends a hand by volunteering to help fix fences or truck animals out to pasture.

“They have got it down to a science now,” Wortman says. “So we have pretty much backed off and they have taken over.”

For transitioning young farmers like himself, Deome’s advice is to listen to anybody with a voice who can lend suggestions and guidance. He says everyone has a little bit of information that can be used to make a transition go easier.

“Everybody has something they can add to help you succeed a little better,” Deome says. “The previous owners did things a little bit different here and there but they had a lot of knowledge of how things have worked here.”

Like his grandfather and father, Deome grew up milking cows and managing herds. While working side-by-side with his dad he was able to build his own small herd.

“When I turned 18, I had to decide if I was going to go to college and sell the 16 cows I had, or take those 16 cows I had and buy a few more,” Deome says. “I decided to start out on my own and bought 30 more cows and have been renting a farm in Montrose, Pennsylvania, over the last four years.”

Despite his farm setup in Pennsylvania, Deome wanted to move closer to family and live in a good farm community.

“I loved the area enough that I knew if I was ever going to buy a place I wanted to come back to Vermont,” Deome says. “Everything just kind of lined up. It almost was like it was too good to be true to find something right where I wanted to be and come back to. I always wanted to milk cows in Vermont and now we are doing it.”  end mark

Audrey Schmitz was a 2016 Progressive Dairyman editorial intern.

PHOTO 1: Matt Deome of Montrose, Pennsylvania, with his mother, Amy, at left, and Joan Wortman look over the Green Acres pasture land in South Randolf, Vermont.

PHOTO 2: Kylie Preisinger of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, introduces her step-father Craig Wortman, mother Joan Wortman and daughter Caroline, 1, as auctioneer Ron Wright stands by at the start of the Green Acres herd dispersal sale. Photos courtesy The Valley News.

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