By Erica Buswell and Elizabeth Sprague, Maine Farmland Trust for Machias Valley News Observer
In 2013, Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) was approached by a visionary Washington County farmer who was hoping to see a way to help more farmers take advantage of all that Washington County has to offer: good farmland, affordable land prices, thriving farmers markets and local foods buying clubs, and expert business support services. Knowing that access to affordable capital is one of the biggest challenges for new and established farmers alike, Ted Carter, of After the Rain Farm, suggested that we help incentivize farm business development in the region by providing affordable loans for farm purchases. If we can help more farmers afford land here, then all of us in Washington County will have more opportunity to keep our local dollars in the local economy.
MFT’s Land Access Loan Program launched a pilot in Washington County in 2015, with seed money generously provided by an anonymous Washington County donor and the Maine Community Foundation.
Farmers can use this fund to help with land purchases two ways: Down Payment Loans can cover some or all of a down payment from a commercial bank, Farm Credit or Farm Service Agency; Principal Loans provide a first-position loan on the purchase of farm property. Interest rates are individually determined. While the Land Access Loan Program is available to all farmers, priority is given to beginning farmers of limited means.
Money helps get a farmer started but that isn’t all it takes to run a successful farm business. We’ve made sure that individualized farm business planning is available along with loan funds. If a farm or farmer’s financial or business circumstances are in need of advice or remedy, MFT will connect a farmer to business and agricultural service providers from our partners and networks like the Beginning Farmer Resource Network of Maine.
But why does this matter to everyone living here in Washington County?
The fund helps farmers who are already here. Whether buying more land to grow their operations or using the loan fund as part of taking over operations in a farm transition plan, the fund makes it easier for local producers and next generation farmers to access local farmland and to keep existing farmland in production.
The fund works synchronically with MFT’s lending partners in the county. For example, Sunrise County Economic Council’s Sunrise AG Microloan Fund can be used simultaneously with ours so that farmers can acquire the farm equipment they need.
The fund benefits markets buying Washington County raised farm products. Even small parcels are an adequate scale for these markets. With more farmers on affordable land, we can enjoy more food grown right here, in your Community Supported Agriculture share, your farmers’ market bag of fresh veggies, your weekly trip to your food buying club and supermarket, or dinner out at your favorite restaurant.
This loan program helps keep our food dollars local. A dollar spent on food grown by our neighbors circulates through farm supply stores, equipment mechanics, hardware stores, mom-and-pop grocery stores, and other business owned by people who live here.
Washington County residents spend over $144 million annually for food. MFT’s loan program helps create the opportunity for residents to consider spending 10% of those dollars on locally sourced food purchases. If residents spend just 10%* locally, that would result in:
- Creating 70 additional jobs,
- Adding $641K in labor income,
- Gaining $117K in state and local taxes,
- Providing $3.5M additional local value-added food produced here, and
- Delivering fresher nutrient-dense, vegetables, fruit, and meat on to food insecure local tables, food pantries, restaurants, schools, and institutional kitchens with far fewer ‘food miles’ than is necessary under current distribution practices.
One visionary farmer wanted to help make Washington County a real possibility for new and experienced farmers to relocate. The Land Access Fund brings solid businesses into the region and helps new families get started in our communities. Find details at www.mainefarmlandtrust.org or contacting MFT’s office at (207) 338-6575.
Maine Farmland Trust will be available to talk about the Land Access Loan Program and other projects at the Washington County Food Summit in East Machias on March 12. For more information about the Food Summit, visit www.healthyacadia.org or call (207) 255 3741.
*Prof Kevin Athearn, University of Maine/Machias