Loans Aim to Help Struggling Farmers

February 18, 2010 : The Berkshire Eagle, by Tony Dobrowolski

PITTSFIELD – Last summer's wet weather didn't just hurt tourism in the Berkshires, it affected the growing season, too.

“It was a really, really hard year,” said Barbara Zheutlin, the executive director of Berkshire Grown of Great Barrington, an organization that supports local agriculture.

To give small farmers a financial boost, MassDevelopment has joined with two nonprofit organizations to form a small farm loan program that will provide loans ranging from $3,000 to $15,000 for eligible farmers across the state. The funds are intended to help farmers finance capital investments and meet operating costs.

Capital investments covered in the loan include those that improve efficiency and quality, or that expand farm production or sales. Also eligible are expenses related to repairs that are necessary to maintain farm operations, operating needs such as inventory, supplies or labor for expansion, and emergency funds that result from natural disasters such as fires.

“We're very excited about it,” said Zheutlin, whose organization counts 197 restaurants, farms, markets and other agricultural entities as members. “Farmers need support at many stages in their farming lives.”

“I think generally with what's been happening with the credit markets, any alternative source of funding is important for farming in Massachusetts,” said Scott Soares, the commissioner of the state Department of Agricultural Resources.

The two nonprofits, Strolling of the Heifers and The Carrot Project, launched a microloan fund for farmers in both Vermont and Western Massachusetts last year that had five recipients, including Mighty Foods Farm, a Community Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) farm in Pownal, Vt. No Berkshire County farms applied for the loans last year, said Dorothy Suput, The Carrot Project's executive director.

MassDevelopment's involvement has allowed the program to be offered across the state this year, according to spokeswoman Kelly Abbruzzese. The Carrot Project, a Somerville nonprofit that creates financing solutions for small and mid-size farms, will administer this year's program with MassDevelopment.

“We partnered with MassDevelopment because we really wanted to work in the entire state,” Suput said. “The alternative for us was to work with different banks. We just thought it made more sense to work with one partner.”

Farmers who either own or lease farms in Massachusetts are eligible for the loans, but the focus is on farms that have 250 or fewer acres under cultivation, report annual revenues of under $250,000, and use or are moving toward organic methods.

While the number of Berkshire County farms increased from 401 to 522 between 2002 and 2007, the average size decreased from 171 acres to 127, according to the state agricultural census, which is compiled in five-year intervals.

More than half of Berkshire County's farms currently have 250 acres or less, said Aimee Thayer, the executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Berkshire County Farm Service Bureau in Pittsfield. Zheutlin said the majority of the 90 farms that belong to Berkshire Grown fit the criteria for the loan program.

“It doesn't mean that they all need or want loans,” she said. “It means that those that do need or want them can have a place to go. It's really great for the local economy.”

Zheutlin said the loan program could really help the county's non-traditional farmers.

“We have people farming [now], who didn't grow up on farms,” she said. “Those people are particularly helped by this fund.”

© Copyright 2010 The Berkshire Eagle.