COVID Response & Recovery Coaching Serves More than 520 Working Lands Businesses

COVID Response and Recovery Program Established to Serve Working Lands Businesses 

The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in rapid changes for individuals, communities, and our economy. Working lands entrepreneurs have been at the front lines, experiencing dramatic sales swings, loss of markets, extraordinary demand for local foods, and upholding public health protocols – all while continuing to carry out essential duties to sustain their communities.

In late March, the Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program at VHCB launched a COVID Response & Recovery Business Coaching Program to help working lands businesses navigate the impacts of the pandemic. Supported with an initial $50,000 Working Lands Enterprise Initiative grant and sustained through $192,000 in federal CARES Act funding allocated by the State Legislature, the program has provided more than 520 clients with free business coaching, matching them with consultants and Viability Program service providers (UVM Extension, the Intervale Center, Northeast Organic Farming Association of VT, the Center for an Agricultural Economy, and the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund). In partnership with Farm First and the Vermont Agricultural Mediation Program, the program also supported stress management, mental health, and mediation services for working lands businesses statewide.

Nearly 60% of the businesses utilizing the program were dairy farmers. Other enterprises seeking business coaching assistance included forest and wood products businesses, value-added processing, produce, livestock, and diversified operations, slaughterhouses, and meat processing enterprises.

Working in collaboration with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets, the Viability Program assisted nearly 400 producers with applying for the Vermont COVID Agricultural Assistance Program grants.

von Trapp farm store When sales to their distributors suddenly dropped by 50%, Molly Semler and Sebastian von Trapp sought business coaching assistance to pivot and navigate the opening of a new farm store, yogurt enterprise, and mail order program that would provide food directly to their community. The store launched in November at the von Trapp Farmstead in Waitsfield where they now sell their meats and cheeses along with other local farm products including butter, eggs, maple syrup, honey, milk, yogurt, flowers, wine, beer, homemade soups, and, on Saturdays, Green Mountain baguettes. (Credit: Molly Semler).

Overall, 82% of businesses that received COVID Response coaching were assisted with accessing state or federal relief programs. Nearly a third received help with financial planning and 20% received help with pivoting toward new markets such as direct sales or shifting to online sales. Thirteen percent (13%) received help connecting with health and wellbeing resources and 12% with addressing labor and human resources challenges.

Clients by sector utilizing COVID Response and Recovery Program Services since March 

pie chart showing breakdown of businesses receiving assistance

Iroquois Acres, Bridport

In April 2020, the COVID pandemic brought with it significant, unanticipated price declines and a quota on milk production for many conventional dairy producers across the country. Iroquois Acres, a fourth generation dairy in Bridport with 2,000 acres across their two locations, was in the extremely challenging position of not being able to cover production costs. Stephanie Pope reached out to the Viability Program for urgent support to access financial resources and develop a plan to keep her family’s business going. Business advisor Rose Wilson assisted her in navigating federal relief programs and analyzing finances to determine how to maintain operations in this extremely lean time. With timely guidance, the family was able to make informed decisions about how to allocate resources and stabilize their business.

“The pandemic caused 30 percent of our income to disappear overnight. Working with Rose through the COVID Response program allowed us to build a cash flow and budgeting tool that has helped us stabilize and improve our efficiency. We’ve adapted this tool for different situations, which has been crucial to making informed business decisions – it’s been a game changer for us!” – Stephanie Pope, Iroquois Acres

Ouellette, Pope, and Foster families of fourth generation dairy, Iroquois Acres. Bridport, VT. Credit: Caleb Kenna Ouellette, Pope, and Foster families of fourth generation dairy, Iroquois Acres in Bridport, VT. (Credit: Caleb Kenna).