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Managing for continuity

The Conants are seasoned players in the ag arena. In 2009, their Riverside Farm weathered depressed dairy prices and a family buyout, followed in 2011 by flooded crops in the wake of Hurricane Irene.

Today, with improved milk prices and a better economy, the sixth-generation Vermont farm family is looking at a mostly sunny forecast. “Sometimes you reach a point when everything just clicks,” David says. “You want to figure out why. Usually it's because of a good team working together well. We've got that now.”

Located west of Richmond, their 800-acre farm is nestled in the Winooski River Valley. Deb and David, along with their son, Ransom, and his wife, Alison, maintain a total herd of 450 Holsteins.

The farm also markets 20 to 22 acres of sweet corn, featuring 12 varieties. Conants' Sweet Corn began in 1985, when Deb left teaching to raise their four children. She set up shop on a picnic table in their front yard. Today, the retail business is housed in the carriage room of their turn-of-the-century red barn. They offer squash, cucumbers, and tomatoes from local growers, a selection of Cabot cheeses, and their own fresh ground beef.

David farmed with his brother, Kim, for 30 years. The partnership was dissolved in 2009 and Deb and David purchased Kim's limited liability corporation (LLC) shares.

Ransom, 33, had returned to farm full time in 2006, after graduating from Vermont Technical College and the University of Vermont. He now focuses on the milk herd and herd health; David manages the crop side of the business. Deb handles payroll and bookkeeping for the dairy and sweet corn enterprises, and she manages a seasonal sweet corn crew. Alison works for the Vermont Department of Agriculture, and then shifts gears for her on-farm roles: calf-feeding, calving and sweet corn chores.

“We have defined roles, but our roles cross over,” Deb says. “Flexibility is key.”

They have seven full-time employees. “They're part of our team,” David says.

The Conants participate in the Vermont Farm Safety program. “The emphasis is on the importance of creating a culture of safety,” Deb says. That includes holding monthly meetings, providing fire extinguishers and first aid kits, and having a facility review by the local fire and rescue unit. “As a result, we had a 10% reduction in workers comp rates,” she says. They received the 2011 Governor's Award for Outstanding Workplace Safety.

The Conants are also members of Agri-Mark Cooperative, which is a division of Cabot Creamery Cooperative.

Day-to-day dairying poses its challenges, but the Conants are setting aside time to focus on two long-range decisions:

1. Continued meetings with advisers to implement a strategy for increasing Ransom's ownership in the LLC.

2. Joining with other producers to implement new conservation and nutrient management practices to protect the Lake Champlain Basin.

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