Are horse owners what’s keeping former dairy farms afloat? And just how many horses are there in Vermont? These are some of the questions the Vermont Horse Council wants to answer, as it believes horses play a larger role in the state’s economy than many think.

The Vermont Horse Council recently released Phase One of a two-phase study that looks at the economic impact horses have in Vermont, said Heidi Krantz, head of the steering committee the council appointed to lead the study. Krantz is a past president and member of the Vermont Horse Council board of directors.

The study cost about $13,000, she said in an interview last Wednesday. The majority of the money came from donations by businesses and horse owners, with some help from the University of Vermont College of Agricultural Studies and Life Sciences.

Some of the first-phase study’s findings are that 8,800 parties were involved in horse-related events during the summer and fall of 2018. Most, 72%, were from out of state. On average, these people spent three days and four nights in Vermont. This group spent an estimated $15,462,850, generating a total of $21,680,891 in economic activity.

Phase Two of the study will look at what horse owners themselves spend to keep their animals. Krantz said many people believe horse owners are all wealthy, when many horse-owning households make less than $75,000 per year.

She said Phase Two is expected to cost another $13,000. The group needs to raise another $10,000 to begin, Krantz said.

“We are working hard to use this money wisely,” she said. Part of the plan for the studies is to make them available to state agencies such as the Agency of Agriculture, the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, and others, to give them accurate information to use when they make policies or other decisions.

Krantz said the information should be helpful in guiding talks about tax policy. She said, for example, horse businesses are often held to the same environmental standards as dairy cow operations, but can’t claim some of the tax breaks. Also, the state doesn’t consider some horse businesses to be agricultural in nature, even though the agriculture industry is changing.

The studies can be used by business owners seeking financing for their horse-related endeavors. Krantz said lenders often want detailed marketing information, which isn’t available for horses. For example, she said, no one knows just how many horses are in Vermont, much less their actual impact on the economy.

For some farmers, selling hay to horse owners has been what keeps their farms operating.

Joe Denardo, whose farm on North Grove Street has been in his family for 100 years, stopped milking dairy cows in 2015.

“There’s no doubt about it, it’s selling hay to people with horses is what’s keeping us going right now,” he said last week.

He sells 5,000 square bales per year at $4 per bale. Most, 95 percent, goes to feed horses. He said it’s the same for many others who once ran dairy farms.

Horse owners generally are looking for hay between Oct. 1 and June 1, the rest of the year the animals are out to pasture. A horse will eat about one square bale of hay per day, making keeping one an expensive endeavor.

Josh Fitzhugh, owner of Tether Loop Farm in West Berlin, said the farm he owns stopped milking dairy cows 30 years ago, and for the past 20 he’s been selling hay, mostly to horse owners. The hay he grows is certified organic, which isn’t something most horse owners are looking for, but some of his customers are organic beef farmers.

He said he sells about 10,000 bales per year. “Almost all of it goes to horse people in central Vermont,” he said. “It’s certainly for us a pretty decent business.”

He said he employs about four people to do haying, and another operation he works with employs about the same.

The farm is about 400 acres, with 160 acres for haying. He said Vermont soil is suited to growing grass, and if he wasn’t producing hay he might be looking at hemp.

Krantz said people can learn more about the study by visiting www.vthorsecouncil.org.

“As young people move to Vermont to work as farriers, veterinarians and instructors, the time is right to learn more about the potential role of the equine industry on Vermont’s economy,” she said in a statement.

keith.whitcomb @rutlandherald.com

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