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Written by Zoe Bradbury, from Our Friends at Edible Portland Magazine
Zoë Bradbury left her urban job in Portland to start farming on the south coast of Oregon. She’s blogging here about her experiences. Below is her fifth entry in Diary of a Young Farmer.
As Zoe experiences the springtime cash flow crisis, the USDA offers no help
The generic plot goes something like this: farmers spend lots of money in the spring, then make it back in the summer and fall.
Springtime = money out. Harvest time = money in.
Unfortunately, there’s a months-long vacuum between “money out” and “money in,” seeing as most crops take at least eight weeks to reach maturity. My carrots promise that they are 57 days to maturity, my tomatoes 80 days, and my asparagus, well, we’re talking two years till they’re ready.
Amidst all of this waiting for veggies to grow on, size up, and get ripe, money has been hemorrhaging out of my pockets to pay for one-time startup expenses, like my greenhouse and irrigation system, and for annual operating expenses, like seeds and soil Jim, my regional FSA agent, asked me all about my farm over the phone. How many acres, and is it leased ground, and what am I growing, and how long have I been at it? After I finished up with the details, Jim hesitated. They’d like to be able to give me a low-interest loan, he explained, but there were a few problems.
First off, if I wanted to spend the money on something permanent – like a buried irrigation main – well, they couldn’t give me the loan because my farm is technically on leased land.
The next bad news: the loan amount they could offer me, explained Jim, would be determined according to my projected income, which they calculate by multiplying my predicted crop yields by the state commodity prices for each crop.
“Huh,” I said, “So what are the state commodity prices this year?”
Jim began reading off the list: “Carrots, 14 cents a pound. Asparagus, 45 cents a pound. Winter squash, 8 cents a pound. Strawberries, 50 cents a pound. Broccoli, 33 cents a pound. Cabbage, 4 cents a pound.”
I did some quick math while he rattled off the numbers. On my 2.5 acres, growing about 25 different crops and selling them at the state commodity prices, it looked like I would gross about $4,900 for the whole year – which would make me eligible to borrow a few hundred dollars from FSA. Maybe enough to buy a stack of Megabucks tickets and hope for better luck from the lottery than the USDA.
“Um…Jim,” I said slowly, “I think I might be farming on a different planet. We’re talking about a few intensive acres, and I’ll be selling my stuff direct, not through a brokerage or a distributor. It’s possible that I’ll get 10 times those prices by selling to local markets here.”
He told me that if I could prove that I’d received those higher prices for my crops for the past three consecutive years, then they could project my income based on those numbers instead.
“But, Jim,” I said, “this is my first year in business. I don’t have three years of records yet.”
Jim paused and his voice sounded regretful. “Then all we have is the state commodity prices. ” I was imagining the cramp I’d have in my hand from scratching off all those lottery tickets with a quarter.
“Jim,” I asked, “do you get many people like me calling you up and asking for loans? New, young farmers who are selling direct and local?”
His answer was no. I felt very small. I wondered where people like me were supposed to go if the United States Department of Agriculture couldn’t help us.
We wrapped up our conversation, and Jim promised to put an application in the mail to me, in case I decided to pursue the loan anyway. I thanked him – he’d given me almost an hour of his time over the phone.
A few days ago I got a one-year 0% interest credit card offer in the mail – and for the first time ever, I didn’t toss it into the recycling bin.