By Erick O’Donnell, Ukiah Daily Journal 10/12/16
North Coast Opportunities, the sponsor of the Good Farm Fund, has so far been fielding inquiries from prospective applicants at a greater rate than last year, said John Bailey, NCO’s representative and a member of the grant committee. The application period opened Oct. 1 and will close at the end of the month.
Bailey attributed the greater interest, from both donors and prospective applicants, to the success of last year’s program, which awarded a total of $7,000 to nine small farms across Mendocino and Lake counties, enabling them to acquire drought-sensitive irrigation supplies, a computer, and a chicken brooder, among other equipment that helped farmers to scale up their operations. The organization has up to $20,000 to award this year.
By funding small capital purchases, the program’s founders and organizers hope to provide local farmers with a foundation on which to build a more productive, economically robust engine for local and environmentally sustainable agriculture. The fund’s leaders ultimately envision a self-supporting regional community of growers, vendors and consumers who can feed themselves while preserving its resources and supporting jobs.
Small-scale farmers hoping to grow their operations face a number of obstacles, including the high cost of land, stiff competition from larger growers, unpredictability, lack of expertise, and—crucially—limited access to capital, said Bailey and other people involved in the fund. Finding a lender willing to invest in a farm with only a few acres and little equipment is among the biggest hurdles to reaching a level of self-supporting profitability, they said.
“As far as I know, you just can’t do it,” said Michael Foley, whose Green Uprising Farm received $785 from the fund last year to purchase hand tools. The farm, which uses the tools in a “no till” method of farming that prevents soil erosion and preserves helpful organisms living in the soil, would not have been able to find a lender to finance the relatively small investment, at least on reasonable terms, he said.
“It’s just too small scale,” Foley said. “You can get a loan, but the interest is pretty steep.”“Not a good idea if you’re trying to minimize costs on a little bit of farming,” he added.
Nor can small-scale farmers get the investment capital they need solely from revenue, which makes community organization and self-support necessary, said Scott Cratty, a co-founder of the fund and the general manager of the Mendocino County Farmers’ Market Association. The Good Farm Fund is meant to lift farmers out of a “Catch-22,” in which the problems of inadequate capital and minimal revenue reinforce one another.
“The more a farm has to offer, the better they do, but you can’t offer more unless you have a bigger customer base giving you more money,” Cratty said.
Local farmers’ markets have struggled to attract more customers and have failed to increase their market share in recent years, Cratty said. With a stagnant revenue base, independent farmers struggle to make a living, let alone invest in greater production, he said.
“No matter how hard you work as a food farmer—as opposed to an intoxicant farmer—if you’re pretty dang talented at it and good at marketing, you can make a living, but just a living,” he said, adding that many local farmers rely on food stamps.
Fund officials aspire to catalyze a network of small-scale, sustainable food production and distribution in which the costs of and opportunities for doing business are aligned with the community’s nutritional, environmental and economic needs.
The mainstream food economy heavily favors large growers, and capitalizing independent farmers is a hopeful step toward fostering a community with strong personal ties between farmers and the consumers whose nutritional and environmental interests they would be trusted to safeguard, the fund officials said.
In the mainstream national food market, varieties of produce are selected not for their nutritional content but for their ability to stay fresh while hauled long distances, Bailey said. In a more locally oriented market, growers and consumers could focus on other priorities, he said.
“Small farmers will be able to give us a broader diversity of nutritious and flavorful food,” Bailey said.
They would also be better stewards of the land than many large-scale agricultural operations, Bailey said. In a distribution network where vendors hold their local suppliers to environmental standards, farmers would have a greater incentive to practice crop rotation, rotational grazing, and other methods that leave the soil intact, he said.
Bailey contrasted such environmentally conscious farmers with some vegetable and fruit growers in the Central Valley who, driven by ruthless economic pressures, repeatedly plant a single crop season after season, depleting the soil and leaving it vulnerable to blow away