Dirt Capital Partners has been busy this past year, thanks to you: our community of farmers and partners who share in the mission to support viable, sustainable working farms throughout the Northeast. It’s our pleasure to share a summary of our work in 2016.
- Welcome to Benneth Phelps, Dirt Capital’s Director of Farmer Services
- Farmland Investments in 2016
- A successful capital raise with eleven mission-aligned investors
- Press mentions, presentations, conferences
1. The Dirt Team is Growing!
Benneth Phelps joined Dirt Capital Partners in January 2016 as Director of Farmer Services. She brings a wealth of experience and an extensive partner-network, and honed her expertise as a manager at the The Carrot Project, where she spent five years evaluating loan applications of farm and food entrepreneurs and helping to shape and strengthen their business plans.
Benneth is one of the “go-to” resources in the region for farm viability and small farm business planning and assistance and has led trainings throughout New York and New England. As Dirt’s Director of Farmer Services, she leads evaluation of new farmer partners and provides ongoing support to existing farmer partners, as well as further develops our approach to facilitating land access and ownership for sustainable farmers in the region.
Prior to The Carrot Project, Benneth spent ten years as a full-time farmer growing vegetables and small fruit in the Connecticut River Valley of Western Massachusetts on farms with as many as 80 acres in organic production.
2. We Closed Our 10th Investment in 2016… and our 9th… and our 8th…
In October 2016, we closed on Dirt Capital’s 10th property: a 40-acre coastal farm in Waldoboro, ME, in partnership with Allison Lakin and Neal Foley. The investment was made possible in part through sale of the conservation easement at closing to the Maine Farmland Trust, which reduced the farm’s purchase price and will preserve it’s soils and coastline in perpetuity. Renamed East Forty Farm and Dairy, the farm will offer: Allison’s award-winning cheeses (sold as Lakin Gorges all over Maine and elsewhere); pasture-raised meat from animals fed in part with whey that is a byproduct of the cheese making process; wood products crafted by Neal’s custom sawmill business that are harvested from the woodlot on the farm; farm-stays and farm education classes for the local community and seasonal visitors.
In July 2016, we purchased 100 acres in Fort Plain, NY with a young Amish organic dairy farm family, and remain in contract to purchase 202 adjacent acres within 3 years (while the farmer leases it directly during the contract period). The farm produces 100% grass-based organic fluid milk and sells it to Maple Hill Creamery. Milk produced from cows that eat only grass (and are not fed grain – known as zero-grain dairy, or grassmilk) is the fastest growing area of the organic dairy market. Demand for this milk is high from companies like Maple Hill, which therefore pay a premium for it. This investment was our first with an Amish family, our first with Maple Hill Creamery, and our first with a horse-powered farm. The project included a significant investment in infrastructure by Dirt Capital, to help construct a new dairy complex on the farm.
In April 2016, we closed on 156 acres in Bridport, VT, including 105 of cropland and 26 of pasture – all certified organic. The partnership is with dairy farmer Jerry Connor, an exceptional client we partnered with in 2014 to purchase the land he had farmed alongside his father since he was a boy. This expansion helps to secure Jerry’s operation and facilitates his transition planning to a young farmer, with support from Dirt Capital and other partners and advisors. Transition projects like these are a core element of DCP's work. By some estimates more than 70% of the country's private agricultural land will change hands in the next 20 years. The best way to keep farms in production is to transfer existing farm businesses to new farmers. DCP is highly focused on this goal as we learn how to leverage our involvement as a land partner to make these transfers work.
3. We Welcomed 11 New Investment Partners
On April 1, 2016, Dirt Capital added eleven new investment partners, all of whom share our mission to invest in farmland in support of ecological land management and farmer land access and ownership.
4. Dirt Capital’s participation in studies, conferences, and press mentions
Land for Good, a New England based group with field staff in every New England state that supports working farms and farmland, released a study that examines private investment in Vermont farms. Dirt Capital participated in the study and supports its conclusions and recommendations for farmers.
The ImPact is a membership network of families that are committed to making investments with measurable social impact. Their “Real Asset Primer” featured Dirt Capital Partners as an example investment strategy.
Our innovative investment model was featured by the Conservation Finance Network on their website and newsletter, and picked up by www.greenbiz.com.
Jacob was invited to talk about Dirt Capital’s mission and innovative investment strategy at the NYTimes Food for Tomorrow Conference at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, in 2015. His talk showcased Dirt’s partnership with organic dairy farmers Jim and Anne Phillips of Triple 3 Livestock, who exemplify the challenges faced by high-quality farmers with successful businesses in need of long-term land security to grow to the next level.
Benneth joined a panel on farmland investment at the Vermont Farm to Plate 2016 conference to present our work and discuss with other Vermont stakeholders how private capital can work with lands trusts and traditional financing to fill gaps in farmland access and transfer in Vermont and around the region.
Benneth joined two panels on farmland investment and financing readiness at this one-day conference which brings together farmers, land trusts, and service providers throughout Maine to discuss farmland access for farmers.
Jacob is a member of the conservation finance network and he lends support to field building activities through participation in practitioner meetings several times per year. Facilitated by Island Press and working in close partnership with the USDA-NRCS, this effort was awarded a $487,000 USDA Conservation Innovation Grant in September 2015 to continue working to build the field of conservation finance.
At the national conference for young farmers held annually at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Benneth led a session for young farmers titled “Farm Business Planning: How to Save 100 Hours” and worked individually with seven farmers during individual consulting sessions.
Benneth spoke as part of a panel titled “Capitalizing the Balance Sheet through Collaboration” at this long-standing event that brings together farmers and others in the agriculture industry from all across New York state.
Jacob participated in a Williams Alumni panel title “Healthy Land and Healthy Food” as part of a Two-Day Symposium on Sustainable Investing.
Jacob and Benneth were invited to Westport, NY by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Essex County to discuss Dirt Capital’s farmland investment partnership model with local farmers and farm service providers from eight local counties.
Jacob spoke on a panel on local investment in food, part of the Berkshire-Taconic Community Foundation’s Roundtable on Place Based Investing, which was held to help inform their partners and supporters about local impact investment activity in the Berkshire-Taconic region. Joining Jacob on the panel were Martin Ping of Hawthorne Valley, Neil Chrisman and Joel Millonzi of Berkshire Agricultural Ventures, and Nick Martinelli of Marty’s Local.