Digging Deeper: VCLF borrower Black Dirt Farm reconsiders farming from the ground up

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Digging Deeper: VCLF borrower Black Dirt Farm reconsiders farming from the ground up

Wed, 10/06/2021 - 8:15am -- katie

From his 128-acre Black Dirt Farm in Stannard, farmer, composter and activist Tom Gilbert digs deep. He’s devoted decades to exploring sustainable agriculture, food systems and soil health, as he re-thinks farming from the ground up.

“We need to understand that it’s a closed loop system,” Tom says emphatically. “It’s a system we need to be self-replenishing, that manages a sustainable flow of carbon through a healthy ecosystem,” he explains. It’s how he’s organized his own regenerative operations in the Northeast Kingdom.
Born and raised in the urban environs of Brooklyn, New York, Tom nevertheless developed a taste for farming early on. “I worked on my uncle’s wheat farm in Kansas when I was fourteen. He supplied wheat to King Arthur Flour,” Tom recalls. He’s worked for (VCLF borrower!) Vermont Compost Company, and served as Executive Director of the Highlands Center for Composting. He’s testified before the Vermont State Legislature on soil health, and agriculture and the economy, and helped draft Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law banning food scraps from landfills.
He brought all of that, along with his wife Molly and daughters Kai and Thea, to the former dairy farm in Stannard they purchased in 2017.

Today, the farm provides food scrap collection services, plus production of eggs, chicken, compost, worm castings, soil mix, produce and hay. If it sounds like a lot, it is. “Black Dirt Farm is basically five separate businesses,” Tom explains, with each of the businesses supporting and driving the next.
Tom breaks it down: Black Dirt’s food scrap collection operation gathers compostable waste from commercial and institutional food producers. The fermenting scraps then provide protein-rich feed for their laying hens, which produce eggs to be sold at retail outlets. Uneaten food scraps are mixed with manure, wood chips, hay and bedding to make compost (here Tom declines to fully reveal his “secret recipe,” except to say that it entails “eleven or twelve ingredients and at least seven different energy/carbon sources”). Processing compost generates heat for the farm’s greenhouses, which extends the season for crop production without additional fuel costs. Compost not eaten by the chickens is further farmed by worms, which leave worm castings – a high-value soil amendment for organic farmers who use it to grow more food.
Sales of eggs, roughly 32,000 dozen per year, chickens for stew meat, compost and worm castings and food scrap collection services all contribute to the financial mix. That diversification helps explain how Tom and his team pushed through the pandemic.
While Black Dirt’s compost sales climbed in 2020 “because everyone and their sister started gardening during COVID” Tom posits, other on-farm enterprises took a hit.
“Our food scrap collection operations fell off by over 50%” Tom tells, which he attributes to unintended loopholes in Vermont’s new universal composting law that inadvertently advantaged large haulers.
At the same time, shortage of materials and labor during the pandemic cut into Black Dirt’s production and profits. With some segments of the ‘closed loop’ under-performing, Black Dirt’s system couldn’t function optimally.
As Tom looked for solutions, he considered VCLF’s mission and goals, and reached out. “I’ve known about VCLF’s work for a long time,” he says.
With help from VCLF, Tom launched a multi-pronged effort to improve operations. “We upped our game with our laying hens to overcome chronic inefficiencies,” he says, thanks in part to a new washing system for the eggs. There was also a hook lift trailer “to handle the dumpsters;” a small box truck for residential curbside collection, and more.
The upgrades are already positively impacting different aspects of Black Dirt Farm’s varied business operations. Expanding the egg operation, for example, has increased their capacity to handle regional food scraps, thereby increasing the region’s capacity to recycle its organic materials.
Tom credits the Loan Fund for making this possible, providing flexible terms and rates. He also stresses the importance of the Loan Fund as a resource for Vermont’s farms and agricultural enterprises. “In prioritizing a vibrant Vermont food system, VCLF fills an important niche in the financing landscape, because it is uniquely mission-driven, and has developed an approach to farm financing that is more responsive to and supportive of farmers,” he says. “And it’s important for communities who seek change and improvement to be able to financially support that vision; VCLF makes that possible too. blackdirtfarm.com
In the second quarter of 2021, the Vermont Community Loan Fund made a record 47 loans totaling $1,912,189 and supporting hundreds of Vermont jobs, early care & learning programs and the families enrolled in them, financing affordable homes and supporting provision of essential services in Vermont’s communities. With a total of $3.9 million loaned year-to-date, VCLF has already surpassed our 2020 lending and impacts and is on track to have one of our most impactful years ever.
VCLF was one of just two Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) in Vermont to administer Paycheck Protection Program loans. The program was established by the federal CARES Act and implemented by the Small Business Administration. Via PPP, the Loan Fund was able to provide 34 small Vermont businesses with emergency funding during the second quarter of this year alone; we’re currently working with these borrowers to have their PPP loans forgiven, according to the program’s intent.
“The second quarter and, in fact, all of 2021, has been really busy for VCLF and our borrowers,” said Loan Fund Executive Director Will Belongia. “Vermont’s hardworking entrepreneurs, early care & earning programs, affordable housing developers and vital service providers have never had greater need. The entire team at VCLF is proud to do this important work, supporting Vermonters and Vermont’s economy,” he added.

Financing was also provided to:

Fisher Brothers Farm, Shelburne (2 loans)
Fisher Brothers Farm produces Sisters of Anarchy premium ice creams and syrups, selling via mail order, at specialty stores, festivals and events. Having canceled all events in 2020 due to COVID-19, they secured a Paycheck Protection Program loan through VCLF, and applied for VCLF SPROUT program financing to assist with renovations, equipment purchases, and advertising & sales consulting. Loans help preserve four full-time jobs, 10 part-time jobs, with two new jobs anticipated. sistersofanarchyicecream.com

Horizons Early Learning Center, Rutland
When Horizons Early Learning opened in 2018, in the basement of Rutland’s Unitarian Universalist Church, they had hoped to serve more families, limited space meant limited enrollments. In 2020, they found a larger facility that, with some upfits and renovations, could accommodate more children. Horizons came to VCLF for a loan to purchase the property and redesign it to meet their needs and goals. The loan resulted in the preservation of 66 early care & learning slots, including 16 for infants and toddlers, and the preservation of 11 jobs.facebook.com/horizonselc.vt

Joneslan Farm, Hyde Park (2 loans)
The multi-generational Joneslan Farm, now run by brothers Brian and Steven Jones, recently transitioned their dairy operations from cows to goats. Today, goats’ milk brings a higher price; goats are also less costly with regards to feed, staffing, equipment, fuel and supplies. Joneslan came to VCLF for help covering costs of new stock, equipment, and renovations associated with this transition. The loan preserves two full-time and two part-time jobs, as well as seasonal positions. facebook.com/joneslanfarm

Lost Nation Brewing, Morrisville
During COVID-19, Lost Nation Brewing saw wholesale business decline, while periods of taproom closure due to the pandemic further cut into their revenues. Thankfully, their canned beer sales kept them afloat. With VCLF financing, they’re expanding this critical production, with purchase of can labeler, and a centrifuge that will increase yield, improve product quality and extend shelf life. The loan preserves 12 jobs, plus 20-30 seasonal positions. lostnationbrewing.com

Lyman’s Towing & Auto, South Royalton (3 loans)
In 2019, Adam Lyman, owner of Lyman’s Towing and Auto services, purchased the facility he‘d been renting for his business, using seller financing. When the seller later requested that he refinance, Adam came to VCLF. With the Loan Fund’s help, Adam repaid the seller’s note, and opened a line of credit to supply the working capital he needed. The loans preserve four jobs and create one new one. facebook.com/lymanspecialtydesignsllc

Mooseloook Diner, Concord
Owner Kevin Fontecha started renovations to his Mooselook Diner property partly with his own funds. To finish the work and ready the property for opening, Kevin came to VCLF for financing to add another room, a deck, a second floor office/storage area, and purchase equipment. The loan helps preserve 20 jobs. mooselookdiner.com

Round Hearth at Stowe, Stowe
Owners Grady & Merry Vigneau operated the Round Hearth at Stowe as a 150-bed youth dorm and hostel, hosting high school groups for ski trips and summer camps. With the onset of COVID-19, they closed the dorm and Merry launched two new, separate businesses in the building: the Round Hearth Café, and the Blue Moon Artisan & Antique Market. With plans to next convert other sections of the dorm into long-term rental apartments, Merry came to VCLF for financing to renovate one apartment and replace roofing. The loan preserves three jobs. roundhearth.com

Wilson Herb Farm, Greensboro
Wilson Herb Farm, a small-scale operation including a farmstead, market, apothecary and greenhouses, grows certified organic culinary and medicinal herbs for use in value-added products they handcraft. When COVID-19 disrupted revenues and farm improvement plans, they came to VCLF to help finance updates to their greenhouse, equipment purchases, and conversion from oil to pellet wood heating. The loan preserves two jobs and creates two new ones. wilsonherbfarm.com

Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) Lending:
• Salah Ali, Colchester
• Align Body & Mind, South Royalton
• Kristi Bessette, St. Albans
• Neeraj Bharati, Burlington
• Jonathan Bilodeau, Barre
• Charlene Caiano, Williston
• Nicola Caiano, Essex
• Catamount Cleaning, Winooski
• Cutting Edge Construction, St. Albans
• Corey Davignon, Orwell
• DMG Vermont Properties, West Wardsboro
• E.A. Tree and Lawn Services, Hartland
• East Hill Tree Farm Nursery, Plainfield
• Flower Basket, Hardwick
• Jeremy Gold, Guilford
• Marlene Holcomb, Manchester Center
• Michael Howrigan II, Enosburg Falls
• Jason & Amber Hubner, Putney
• Jamaican Supreme, Winooski
• Susan Kennedy, Waterbury
• Leaping Bear Farm, Putney
• MJS Travel, Woodstock
• MSB Builders, Bakersfield
• Robert Nuzzo, Jeffersonville
• Noah Ponzio, Colchester
• Powers Park, Lyndonville
• Ringer’s Home Care, Vergennes
• Susan Smereka, Burlington
• Stowe Bee Bakery, Stowe
• UA Local 693 Plumbers & Pipefitters, South Burlington
• Vermont Labor Council, AFL-CIO, Montpelier
• VSUB Gould, Brattleboro
• Walnut Hill Farm, Pawlet
• Wilder Land Works, Vershire