Financial help for start-up farmers

Nathaniel Talbot is serious about becoming a farmer.

The 29-year-old relocated from Portland to Whidbey Island to take a farming training program at Greenbank Farm. Now he and his partner, Annie Jesperson, have leased an acre on Whidbey Island and are growing and selling fall and winter vegetables directly to 30 customers.

Their biggest challenge isn’t working the land or finding customers. It’s getting established in a business that is, as Talbot puts it, “highly capital-intensive.” Tractors, land, a greenhouse — the costs of getting started are high even for a farmer who wants to start small.

He hopes a new program will help. Talbot was one of the first people to apply for a program aimed at new farmers and ranchers. If he’s accepted, it will help him save money for a big purchase.

The program is a rural agricultural Individual Development Account. It’s being offered jointly by two local nonprofits, Slow Money Northwest and Cascade Harvest Coalition.

Here’s how it works: A farmer or rancher puts away money into a savings account and that money is matched with grant money, up to $2,500 per year for two years. The money can be used to purchase equipment or livestock, or to make a down payment on farmland.

It’s not a lot of money, but it would help, Talbot said.

“For the vast majority of farms, it’s chump change,” he said. “For someone just starting out working a few acres, a few thousand dollars could buy a greenhouse, a used tractor or a major implement for the tractor — the kind of things we need to get off the ground.”

More than two dozen farmers and ranchers have applied for the program, which began this month.

IDA programs were first used as tools to combat poverty in urban settings. Low-income families were rewarded for saving for a new home, education or a new business with matching grants. Washington is one of 10 states to participate in a national effort to adapt this model to rural areas.

It’s one way to help stave off the loss of farmers and farmland in America, said Tim Crosby, director of Slow Money Northwest.

“We need more farmers,” he said. “The best way to keep farmland is to help farmers make money.”

The program is more than some extra cash. Farmers who participate also receive business development training, mentorship and access to other resources, Crosby said.

America — and the Northwest — faces a serious problem with the loss of farmers and farmable land, said Mary Embleton, director of Cascade Harvest Coalition. Her organization is dedicated to reinvigorating the local food system.

Many of the people who work locally in agriculture are nearing retirement. Even if a young person has the knowledge and desire to enter the business, they don’t usually have the money to buy land or expensive equipment, she said.

“It’s a daunting problem,” she said. “Most of the agriculture land is going to change hands in the next few years. If we want to maintain the benefits of local agriculture, we need to make sure people are getting on the land and working it.”

Most young people entering agriculture don’t have the long financial track record necessary to get a loan. The program helps new farmers establish a savings track record that will help them qualify later for traditional lending.

“It’s just a start,” she said. “It’s not the silver bullet but it’s one more tool in the tool kit.”

This program is geared toward people who are certain they want to make a serious go of farming or ranching, Embleton said. It’s not for folks who are still giving it a try. To qualify, participants must be part of a farm business training program, incubator or internship which includes a minimum level of financial literacy and business development training.

The start-up money for this program is paid for with an $18,000 federal grant. The grant money that goes to farmers comes from donations. The director of Slow Money said they are targeting businesses and organizations with a vested interest in farming.

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