Another View: Microloans give small farms a new resource

06/16/2013 12:00 AM

09/23/2013 8:09 AM

Traveling throughout California, I have worked with countless beginning farmers and ranchers, veterans, farmers market vendors, restaurant food suppliers, urban agriculturalists, and many others interested in making a living growing the food that we consume. For most of these men and women, the daily costs of running even a small farming operation can test the mettle of the most committed farmer or rancher.

Many have resorted to funding their operating expenses on a credit card or with a high interest personal loan. Not surprisingly, the debt burden can quickly become overwhelming and too often the result is often dashed hopes, deferred dreams or even bankruptcy.

Last week's California Forum section (Stuart Leavenworth, June 9) highlighted some of the "gaps" that prevent consumers from accessing more locally grown food. Earlier this year, USDA unveiled a micro-finance option for farmers for the first time in its history. It attempts to close some of those gaps. Since January, we've made more than 60 microloans in every corner of California. For many first-time borrowers, these small, super-low-interest loans have been a real game changer. We've funded livestock operations in Lassen County, organic vegetables in Yolo County, cut flowers in Monterey County, peach orchards in Fresno County and the list goes on.

While these farming operations are as diverse as California itself, the common denominator is that USDA microloans have allowed these family businesses to hire additional employees, expand their markets, buy new equipment, and make important investments in the communities that make up rural California. The "holy trinity" for most farmers is access to land, water and capital. With the microloan program, we're addressing that last need directly for an increasingly important and rapidly growing segment of California's agricultural mosaic.

The nuts and bolts of these USDA microloans are pretty straightforward: $35,000 or less, an interest rate currently at 1.25 percent, a streamlined and less bureaucratic application process, a broad range of potential uses for loan funds and credit for nonfarm experiences of running a small business or apprenticing in an farm-related operation.

These loans allow USDA to directly respond to farmers who want to grow for farmers markets, CSA businesses, local restaurants, and other food-related businesses. We are investing in today's agricultural innovators, but are also sowing the seeds for the next generation of California's farmers and ranchers.

Microloans are important investments not just because agriculture can provide the food, fuel and new jobs that will continue to build our economy and ensure a safe and affordable food supply, but because they provide access to the American dream. They empower people, they build local businesses, they expand opportunity and they work to sustain local and regional economies.

By expanding access to credit, we're helping to grow one of the industries upon which our country was built. And with the USDA microloan, we're doing it one farm at a time.

Val Dolcini was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009 to serve as the state executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in California. He can be reached at val.dolcini@ca.usda.gov.

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