Staff Spotlight: Nikki Lennart
By Tessa Lightfoot, Development Intern
Nikki Lennart started working at the Intervale Center in November 2018 as a farm business specialist. Nikki first worked on a farm while in college at the University of Wisconsin and instantly fell in love with it. After graduating she moved to Oakland, CA for a brief period where she was involved with urban farming and food justice. She moved to the east coast for graduate school at Tufts University and focused her studies on agricultural and food policy. Her passion for farming persisted and, after receiving her Master’s degree, she returned to Wisconsin to pursue farming. While she searched for farmland, she worked in the Dairy Science Department at the University of Wisconsin. During this two year period looking for land, she learned about the USDA and FSA loans available to young beginner farmers, and specifically socially disadvantaged women farmers. When she saw the posting for the position at the Intervale Center, she thought that because of her personal experience going through the trials of accessing land, loans and capital, she would be a good fit to help others through that same process.
What attracted you to working at the Intervale Center?
I thought this position and the work the Ag Services did at the Intervale were pretty unique. I found the one-on-one work that we do with farmers and our capacity to meet farmers on their land to learn more about their work to be especially incredible. I think Vermont and the resources and the programs in farm viability at the Intervale are so unique. Even having lived in New England, in the Midwest, and out West, I’ve never seen this type of one-on-one work or the type of collaboration with organizations and agencies and government. It’s a special feeling, and I feel really lucky to work here.
What is the process you go through with farmers to help build their businesses?
The majority of the farmers I work with have worked for other farmers and have come to a point in their career where they are ready to do it themselves but they’re not on their own land. So I’ll sit down with them and we write up a business plan or talk about their goals or even just their vision. I run them through various scenarios so that given the opportunity to get land, they would have a business plan ready to go. And that’s kind of what I did in Wisconsin – we didn’t have the exact farm, we didn’t know the land base or the acreage, but we had a really good idea once we found that piece that we could hit the ground running.
The other set of farmers I work with are either on leased land or they’ve been on their land for a few years and either its too small or they’re just not making ends meet. That’s where I come in. I look at their books from the last two seasons and I have them take me through their labor throughout the day/week/season. At that point we do an analysis of what they’ve been doing and identify what hasn’t worked or hasn’t been viable because of the scale they’re at. For example, maybe they haven’t included labor, or maybe they’re just doing too much and spreading themselves too thin. So doing that analysis gives them confidence to make some decisions for the rest of the season or for next year.
How long does each project last? How long are you in contact with farmers?
It’s really up to them how much time they want to commit to. In the first few months it’s very “on” and we will see and interact with farmers a lot. After that it’s on them to reach out, but we do check in if we haven’t heard from them in a while. The timeline of our partnerships are really based on reality of the fact that things are always changing in life. We could be working with farmers anywhere from a few months to a few years, so it’s really open ended. There is no “end,” once they make contact with us, it can be forever.
What is your favorite part of working at the Intervale Center?
I can go on and on about my daily work, which usually takes me away from the Intervale Center because I am traveling so much. But it is so exciting to know that back at the Intervale Center there is so much other stuff happening. To be a part of that, of pushing envelopes in the state and in the food system, with the gleaning program, the conservation nursery and the other branches of the organization, is really incredible. And being new to Vermont and Burlington, when I tell people I work at the Intervale Center, not once have I met someone who didn’t know what it was, who didn’t smile and have a good memory of it or a reason why they like coming down here. That’s been unique for me in my career and working for this organization in particular personally is something I’ve been very proud of.
What are some challenges you face in this position?
I guess I didn’t expect the emotional support needed. There are so many resources a farmer needs – whether it’s learning about production systems or markets or financial development or whatever – and we can only do so much. There is so much that beginner farmers aren’t aware of when they’re starting out. We are informing them with legal stuff, accounts, taxes, and other things that they haven’t been exposed to and that can be really daunting. In turn, it’s emotionally challenging for us to be that sounding board for both their emotional support and for their business/financial support. Fortunately, I feel like I can provide that and that has been very rewarding for me. I don’t think farmers get that kind of support one spot or one organization outside of what we do. I think the work we do is pretty unique and invaluable.
How many people on your team?
The team is lead by Sam Smith, who has been here the longest and works with the retiring farmers and the farm transfer and succession plans. Kevin Chanell works with a similar group of farmers as Sam but is more focused on the southern half of the state. Then there’s myself, and I deal a lot with the beginner farmers. We also have a part-time employee named Annalise Carington. She splits time between the Intervale Center and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and then does some site assessments and business planning. So there are 3.5 of us in the Agricultural Services department. This is a really great team. We’re always sharing information, asking each other questions, and getting each other’s feedback. Once we’re working with a farmer, they get access to the whole Ag Services department.
How many farmers do you work with each year?
It totally depends. I’ve been here about seven months now and so far I’ve worked with almost 30 farms. That spans from coaching (taking a call if someone is inquiring from out of state, talking about properties they want to come and move to Vermont) to a full-blown more intensive one-on-one work where a business plan and cash flow and enterprise analysis are involved. In total, we are probably working with about 100 farms a year.