Rapid Response Business Assistance Helps Fit the Pieces Together 

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

By Ela Chapin, Vermont Housing and Conservation Board

When the pandemic hit, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB) shifted the long-term business and succession planning services normally provided through its Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program to emergency business assistance and rapid response coaching, a mobilization they first modeled after Hurricane Irene in 2011. A key part of VHCB’s work since late March has been helping businesses pivot to new sales channels and to apply for COVID relief, including Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL), Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), and state relief programs. 

To assist agricultural businesses, VHCB was able to leverage existing funds as well as receiving support from the Vermont Working Lands Enterprise Board and CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Funds. Vermont’s State Legislature appropriated over $34 million in CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Funds for the Vermont COVID-19 Agriculture Assistance Program (VCAAP) to “stabilize agricultural businesses and organizations based on their lost revenues and expenses related to the COVID-19 public health emergency.” VCAAP grants were awarded to eligible farmers, meat and poultry processors, commercial slaughterhouses, farmers' markets, value-added food product businesses, forest products businesses, producer associations, dairy producers and processors, and farm to school programs run by schools and child care providers.

“The investments we've been making for decades to build our local and regional food systems showed up this year. They paid off in how rapidly our farm and food system was able to pivot and support local communities in their immediate needs for food access, from doubling and tripling demand on the charitable food system to new retail pathways. We had this incredible ability to respond because of the variety of production, the creativity of our agricultural and food entrepreneurs, and the local and regional infrastructure that we've supported and that entrepreneurs have been taking the risks to build.”

-Ela Chapin, Director of Vermont Farm and Food Viability Program, Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. 

Agricultural agencies had to set up these new grant-making programs from scratch, leaving farmers scrambling to figure out how to access funds during their busy spring. VHCB’s Viability Program acted as a clearinghouse for producers to determine which programs they were eligible for and receive technical assistance with their applications. Sixty percent of the 500+ businesses they assisted were dairy farmers, followed by forest and wood products (10%), value-added processing businesses (6%), produce operations (5%), and slaughter/meat processing enterprises (3%).

“About half of the dairy farmers that applied for grant funds needed help filling out the application, understanding their milk check and where to find the financial information,” explains Ela Chapin, Director of the Viability Program. “Many of them didn't have adequate online access, or the skills to navigate the systems required to apply electronically. Both our Agency of Agriculture and our Viability business advisors are working double time helping agricultural entrepreneurs access federal relief funds in a rapid way.”

VHCB also helped farms to rapidly change their business models; many food sector businesses saw increased demand, but from completely different types of customers. VHCB helped farmers think through online systems for sale, how to pivot to having local customers, and how to rethink their packaging. Many farms set up or expanded existing farm stores to meet the new demand for local products. 

Thanks to their support, farms like Iroquois Acres in Bridport, VT, were able to receive assistance to help keep their businesses afloat. Experiencing significant, unanticipated price declines and a quota on milk production, this fourth generation dairy was in the extremely challenging position of not being able to cover production costs. The Viability Program matched the farm owners with a business advisor who helped them navigate federal relief programs and analyze their finances to determine how to maintain operations in this extremely lean time. With timely guidance, and equipped with an adaptable budgeting tool, the family was able to make informed decisions about how to allocate resources and stabilized their business.

Learn more about Paycheck Protection Program

Learn more about Economic Injury Disaster Loans

Learn more about Pandemic Unemployment Assistance

Learn more about Vermont Working Lands Enterprise Board

Learn more about Vermont COVID-19 Agriculture Assistance Program


Read more in How State and Federal Programs Support Farmers, Fishermen, Food Entrepreneurs and Consumers in the Northeast