Farmer Smith goes to Burlington
This Intervale Farm Program veteran finds politics and farming to be fairly comfortable bedfellows.

By Dan Sullivan
December 9, 2004, Burlington, VT

David Zuckerman has beaten the odds in a number of ways. He’s a successful politician unaffiliated with either major party who has gained reelection to Vermont’s legislature five times running not by currying favor, but by holding fast to his convictions. And, side by side with his wife Rachel Nevitt, he’s making a pretty good go of it as a small farmer in Burlington.

The son of a Boston doctor, Zuckerman got the bug for farming early on in the family’s huge suburban garden and during summer vacations spent in the Shenandoah Valley of rural Virginia. Just a year after his 1993 graduation from the University of Vermont, Zuckerman narrowly lost his first bid for public office running as a Progressive candidate for the state legislature. He was elected to Vermont’s House of Representatives in 1996 and has repeated that success every two years since.

After five years working on other area farms, Zuckerman and his wife took the plunge and joined the Intervale Farm Program (see related story), farming 2 1/2 acres there in their first year. Six years later, they’ve got 15 NOFA-certified acres—with 9 to 10 under production each season and the balance in cover crops—growing 40 diverse crops and serving 145 CSA members. David and Rachel sell some bedding plants in the early season (including through Gardener’s Supply Co.), wholesale to a few restaurants and health food stores, set up weekly at the Burlington Farmers’ Market, and host a pick-your-own organic strawberry operation during peak season. Rachel, a potter, spinner, and natural dyer, augments their farm income as does David with his modest paycheck from the state. Despite the outside income and a frugal lifestyle, the couple still lacks health insurance. “We’re at an age where we have to make the decision: Is the risk worth the health insurance?” says Zuckerman. Paying themselves and their employees a livable wage is a critical goal in the couple’s quest toward true sustainability.

A fresh start

Besides offering new farmers access to prime farmland not much more than a stones’ throw from market, a pool of farming equipment and other necessary inputs such as an endless supply of quality compost, says Zuckerman, Intervale’s incubator program offers something perhaps even more valuable—a community of caring and capable peers and mentors.

“You’ve got this agrarian community of like-minded folks to bounce questions off, sharing equipment, teaching you how to use it…[talking] about pests and diseases and cover crops…how to grow and how to market. The networking is extremely valuable.” The Intervale program allows new farmers to invest three or five years of time to see if farming is really for them without having to try to buy land or go into debt, Zuckerman says. Now considered an “enterprise farmer,” Zuckerman says his costs to Intervale—for perks that include greenhouse and cooler space as well as equipment and land—currently account for about 20 percent of his operating costs.

Despite all the support, one still needs some capital to make a go of it at Intervale, Zuckerman says. “But the capital to start here is not even 10 cents on the dollar compared to what you would need on your own.

“When I tell folks around the state what I pay per acre here [$120 annually], it is higher than rural areas but it’s within the same range,” he says, reiterating that the advantage of this particular farmland is being so close to market. “This land is not developable; it’s not competing with the market pressure that other [agricultural] land is.” (Most of the acreage at Intervale is considered wetlands.)

In Burlington—a town known for its relatively “crunchy granola” population, including University of Vermont students—willing employees aren’t too difficult to find, Zuckerman says. Quality ones, however, are another story. With more than 100 job inquiries a year, Zuckerman (who admits to being a tough boss) says he learned early on that a lofty desire to work on an organic farm seldom translates to competence in the field. “This is our business,” he says. “I’m just not going to deal with you if you think all organic farming is about is chilling and picking a flower.”

Zuckerman recalls with a slight smirk that he’s even scared off a few well-meaning friends who came down to Intervale to lend a hand. “It’s hard work out here; it’s cold, it’s hot, it’s buggy, it’s cold, it’s hot, it’s buggy—and that’s just within one hour.

“The return for the work is irrational in our society…but that’s farming.”

Bordering a city does present its challenges. Animal damage is “more of the two-legged variety,” Zuckerman quips, adding that hand tools left out overnight often disappear with more frequency than crops. “I know people come out here and graze the berries,” he says, adding that the benefits of farming in an urban area still far outweigh the inconveniences.

Sharing resources with other farmers offers some challenges, too, but they are mostly worked out smoothly among friends, says Zuckerman. For instance, he says, as an enterprise farmer he’s not allowed to request equipment more than 24 hours in advance, while incubator farmers have a week. This is supposed to reflect a greater ability on the part of more experienced farmers to adjust quickly and plan ahead (though Zuckerman says he sometimes thinks the arrangement should be the other way around). Also, equipment used by several farmers is bound to break down more often, he says.

On the other hand, Zuckerman says, it would be a long time before he’d ever be able to purchase 35 hp, 50 hp, and 75 hp tractors on his own—currently, he uses all of these. “Certain implements get a little bit tight…some farms own their own tractors or other pieces of equipment…Is this world perfect? No it’s not…Sometimes elbows get rubbed, but that’s pretty rare. Most of the time we just talk things out, work things out.” (Zuckerman says he’s considering going in on a second-hand tractor with a neighboring collective farm.)

"Is this world perfect? No it’s not…Sometimes elbows get rubbed, but that’s pretty rare. Most of the time we just talk things out, work things out."

What’s the next logical infrastructure step for Intervale? “Dry storage, I would say. Another farmer might say something different.”

Zuckerman’s other hat that has him stumping as a politician gives him a leg up when it comes to effectively marketing his business. “Farmers are typically insular and introverted types,” he says, recalling how he aggressively canvassed neighborhood businesses with fliers announcing his new CSA and how he continues to benefit from working the press. Being a state representative also adds to the visibility factor.

And being an organic farmer informs his effectiveness, and focus, in the state legislature.

Zuckerman has served on both the House Agriculture Committee and the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. He led the way passing legislation that requires all genetically modified seed sold in Vermont to be labeled as such, and he continues to work tirelessly to close loopholes in that landmark law.

For David Zuckerman, being a successful farmer and being an effective elected official are all about building relationships.

“One of the reasons I still farm is that 90 percent of our food is direct to consumer,” he says. “We can educate people about farming…and make people understand agriculture. Overall, I would say that we have pretty educated consumers.”