Jars of Thirty Acre Farm sauerkraut, kim chi and pickles sport new labels in this display at the Winter Farmers Market in Portland, thanks to a loan from the No Small Potatoes Investment Club.
By Avery Yale Kamila
Thirty Acre Farm is known for its lacto-fermented pickles, sauerkrauts and kimchis, which are made without added vinegar or sugar at the organic farm in Whitefield. The popular products can be found at health food stores and farmers markets, and they're distributed by Crown O' Maine Organic Cooperative.
Recently, Thirty Acre Farm found itself unable to fulfill its Crown O' Maine order -- not because it didn't have enough product, but because it was running short of labels and lacked the cash on hand to make a new order.
Crown O' Maine told farmers Simon and Jane Frost about a brand-new venture that provides low-interest loans to farmers and food producers. As a result, Thirty Acre Farm secured one of the first loans offered by the No Small Potatoes Investment Club.
"They want to work with farmers rather than being hard and fast with the rules," Simon Frost said. "They're all customers of ours who want to invest in our future."
The investment club is an offshoot of the Slow Money Maine meetings, which have been taking place in the state since January 2010. Part of a national movement, slow money aims to redirect capital from the stock market into sustainable, local food ventures.
Working from the slow money philosophy, nine people came together to form the club last fall and formalized their operating agreement last month. Members must make an initial contribution to the investment fund of no less than $5,000, and the club plans to cap membership at 20 people.
"We saw a need so we started making micro-loans," said Chris Hallweaver of Portland, one of the founding investors.
In the 1980s, Hallweaver, a former software executive and a current partner in the Maine Kombucha Co., was a member of a stock market investment club. Members would meet monthly, chip in $100 and then share in the profits and losses.
Wanting to conform to Securities and Exchange Commission regulations, the No Small Potatoes group decided to use the investment club model, and formed a limited liability corporation.
"We get together on a quarterly basis, and a member or two will take on the job of interviewing loan applicants, and then we decide whether or not to fund them," Hallweaver said.
So far, the group has made three loans. In addition to the Thirty Acre Farm loan, the club has loaned money to Heiwa Tofu in Camden and Lalibela Farm in Dresden.
"I love aligning my beliefs with my investments," said Eleanor Kinney of Bremen, another founding club member. "This is a different model than having stock in companies that make products which I'd never feed my children."
In addition to her work with No Small Potatoes, Kinney is an equity investor in the Maine's Own Organic Milk Company and sits on the board of the Maine Farmland Trust.
Kinney said she became interested in local, sustainable agriculture when her children were born and she was confronted with the need to feed them nutritious food.
When she heard about the budding slow money movement in Maine, she knew she had to get involved.
"For people in agriculture, traditional financing doesn't always work for them," Kinney said.
At its next quarterly meeting, scheduled for March 28, the club will evaluate 11 applicants seeking loans. The applicants want funding for things that range from building improvements to new pieces of restaurant equipment.
Money is lent at a 3 percent interest rate, and the terms vary from less than a year up to three years.
"We're not a bank," Hallweaver said. "So we want to serve people who banks don't lend to. We don't require business plans and great financials. If you have that, you probably don't need us."
Instead, one of the most important factors the club members use in evaluating applicants is their reputations in the community.
"We want to lend the old-fashioned way," Hallweaver said. "We take into account what their peers, suppliers and customers say about them."
"This is not for everyone," Hallweaver said. "A lot of these farmers need grants (rather than loans). This is one experiment we're doing with slow money. There will be many more efforts. But the need is now. If we want to eat local and support our farmers, we've got to figure out how to do it 12 months a year."
The No Small Potatoes loans are unsecured, and the club intends to work with any borrowers that find themselves unable to make payments. In case the worst-case scenario of a borrower actually defaulting ever happens, the club is establishing a loan loss reserve fund to cover such unpaid debts.
The details of the loan loss fund are still in the works, but Hallweaver said in the future they may institute a 1 percent fee at the time the loan is originated to finance the fund.
Unlike a traditional bank loan or mortgage, these loans have other objectives besides providing a return for investors. For instance, the club is interested in preserving farmland, creating jobs, building community and helping farmers sell value-added products.
"It comes down to, we want farmers to get a better price for their crops," Hallweaver said. "We need them to be profitable and successful."
This profitability and success will come as farmers and food producers improve their physical infrastructure and increase their processing, marketing and distribution capacities. All of these things will make local food more widely available, yet all of them take capital resources.
"We're a network of people who are trying to figure out how to bring resources to rebuilding a food system in Maine," Kinney said. "With what the Western diet is doing to people, we need a local, sustainable food system.
"In Maine, we have a huge problem with obesity and diabetes. How can we afford not to do this?"
Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow her on Twitter at: Twitter.com/AveryYaleKamilaTweet