Forgivable loans aimed at helping to upgrade on-farm housing in Vermont

Published: Feb. 17, 2023 at 4:24 PM EST
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SHOREHAM, Vt. (WCAX) - The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board through the Champlain Housing Trust is making deeper investments in on-farm housing. It’s something experts say is a critical need if we are chasing farm viability.

Champlain Orchards in Shoreham is prepping to welcome back about 80 migrant farmworkers from Jamaica, labor the orchard considers critical to their success.

“We are picking all our apples by hand. We are sorting them on a packing line by hand,” said Bill Suhr of Champlain Orchards.

To house those workers, Suhr-- over time-- has purchased adjacent homes and renovated them, and he’s updated housing on his own property.

“Existing housing that has been renovated or modified to stay up to code,” he said.

That has meant plumbing work, electrical, carpentry and general in-home renovation so workers have privacy and all basic amenities. But that comes at a high cost.

“Assistance with housing, which many farms might not prioritize, turns out to be quite the opportunity to be competitive,” Suhr noted.

Census data says 8,500 people are employed at Vermont farms. About 2,000 of them rely on on-farm housing. Research from the UVM Extension says in Vermont, one-third of those workers who live on farms report inadequate living conditions.

“Demand is really high,” said Julie Curtain of the Champlain Housing Trust.

The housing trust is on round two of funding dedicated to renovating and repairing current on-farm employee housing. They estimate about 600 on-farm units need repair, ranging from small repairs under $5,000 to some needing more than $50,000 in investments.

Applications opened Friday for access to more than $750,000 in forgivable loans.

“Improvements to the housing to bring it up to the rental housing code, that’s really looking at life safety,” Curtain said.

Experts at the UVM Extension expect the need to grow if employees look to bring their families along while they work, or as dairy farmers seek labor from out of state to fill jobs.

“As dairy farms shift to hire migrant labor, there will be a greater need for more and better housing,” said Dan Baker of the UVM Extension.

Back in Shoreham, Suhr says he will continue to invest in his workers. He believes you get out what you put in.

“It’s in our best interest to make that housing good, especially for the men that are here 10 months of the year; this is their home away from home,” he said.

Suhr says he could be welcoming his workers back to the Green Mountain State as soon as Monday.