California FarmLink: Growing an Agricultural CDFI

California agriculture offers incredible opportunities, but farming is an inherently risky enterprise. To feed our communities farmers must cope with many factors outside their control: weather, pests and disease, land values, and varying production costs and market returns. Yet still, many people are looking to invest their futures in agriculture. Ten percent of California farm operators are now Latino – many of them were field workers looking to move beyond subsistence wages. Others are attracted to farming from urban areas, looking to be part of a healthy local food system, and using farmer’s markets to get started.

California FarmLink supports a diverse new generation of farmers, linking them with land and financing. Established in 1999, FarmLink supports farmers throughout the state, with a focus on agricultural communities in Northern California; nearly 90% of clients are certified organic. Initially FarmLink helped new farmers to access land, and quickly learned that beginning farmers had little access to capital to scale and grow profitable businesses. FarmLink began a micro-lending program in 2011 and in 2013 was certified by the U.S. Department of the Treasury as a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) to expand its lending and technical assistance services for low-resource and beginning farmers.

WHAT IS A COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT FINANCIAL INSTITUTION?

As a CDFI, FarmLink is a financial institution with community development as its primary objective. In order to maintain its status as a CDFI, FarmLink demonstrates that it primarily serves low-income individuals and is accountability to the needs of beginning and historically disadvantaged farmers, including women and farmers of color. Another hallmark of CDFIs is that lending is accompanied by individualized technical assistance, such as helping farmers prepare and maintain financial statements which are critical for recordkeeping and demonstrating progress.

There are growing numbers of CDFIs investing in food systems and food access work in underserved communities, but California FarmLink is one of a handful nationwide focused on production agriculture, and among even fewer that specialize in sustainable agriculture and beginning farmers.

WHO DOES FARMLINK SERVE?

FarmLink serves beginning and limited-resource farmers with a focus on Latino and women farmers. At least 80% of our loans have been made to organic farmers, reflecting a vital production and market niche for beginning farmers. Over the past five years, 95% of FarmLink’s loans have been made to low-income individuals, 75% of borrowers are minorities, primarily Latinos, and 32% of loans are to women.

Farmers who operate at a small scale and/or engage in direct marketing and organic production can face barriers to the capital they need to operate efficiently, invest in infrastructure, and gain access to land. Barriers can include gaps in knowledge and understanding of financing options, limited business or credit history, and other difficulties in meeting standard eligibility requirements for business loans. Furthermore, banks often deem small, beginning farm operations as too costly and risky to finance, particularly those which are only seeking small (and less profitable) loans. As a result, too many of California’s beginning farmers cannot access the capital they need to operate, or to secure land tenure. FarmLink’s deep experience in agriculture, combined with its flexibility as a CDFI, make it uniquely positioned to meet the needs of farmers.

Diversified small- and mid-scale farmers have diverse capital needs. For example, strawberries, with a cost of about $10,000/acre to establish plants over the winter, require upfront investment months before sales commence. Shorter-season crops such as broccoli are often transplanted, requiring labor and thousands of transplants. Farmers use loan funds for operating costs, to purchase farm equipment, expand acreage in production, and purchase farmland. FarmLink’s mortgage program allows farmers to invest in improvements to soil and farm infrastructure, grow business equity, and build sustainable local food systems. These same farmers would likely not otherwise be able to purchase land to establish farm ownership and greater long-term stability.

Delivering capital to support beginning farmers is an investment in the future. The average age of farmers in California is estimated to have reached 60, and farmers aged 65 and older outnumber those who are 25 to 34 by a ratio of six to one. With its focus on facilitating access to land and capital, FarmLink plays a vital role in growing and supporting the next generation of California farmers.

FARM PROFILE: Garcia Brothers Farm, Salinas

FARMER PROFILE: Octavio Garcia, Garcia Brothers Farm

The Garcia Brothers Farm near Salinas produces a variety of certified organic vegetables, including kale, chard, tomatoes and strawberries. The farm began in 2009 when Octavio Garcia invited his younger brother to join him in starting a farm. When Octavio was only 16 years old their mother signed their first land lease at ALBA. Given his age and limited business record, Octavio knew he needed a lender who could be flexible and offer technical support. After his first couple of years, FarmLink provided operating capital starting at $10,000 and helped the Garcia Brothers build a strong repayment history. Octavio received assistance from FarmLink in preparing cash flow projections and loan applications and, eventually, in finding land and negotiating a secure land lease.

Today, Octavio and Francisco operate a resilient business that maintains 11 jobs and operates on 15 acres. The Garcia brothers join the many Latino farm owner-operators who are the fastest-growing demographic in California agriculture. FarmLink is working alongside many of them to mitigate risk and build long-term stability and wealth with the effective use of loan capital. In addition, FarmLink provides farmers with business technical assistance as an integral part of our ongoing lending relationships, and our partner, Kitchen Table Advisors, provides in-depth business development assistance to some borrowers, including Garcia Brothers Farm.

On average, each FarmLink loan helps maintain 4.5 full-time jobs and creates 1.8 jobs.

Bucio Family Farm, Salinas

FarmLink assists in 40-50 land links annually, helping young and beginning farmers to secure land tenure through lease or purchase.

Say Hay Farms, Esparto

FARM PROFILE: Sol Seeker Farm, Tres Pinos

Kaley Grimland and Edgar Mendoza, Sol Seeker Farm

Sol Seeker Farm is the brainchild of Kaley Grimland and Edgar Mendoza. Both have had training and professional experience in farm advising; Kaley at ALBA near Salinas, and Edgar in his native Paraguay. Their farm start-up in early 2014 was the result of a farm business succession opportunity that came to FarmLink from Hain Ranch Organics in San Benito County. It is a certified organic pastured poultry operation in stacked use within a walnut orchard; where the trees provide shade for the poultry, the poultry provide fertilizer for the trees, and the orchard’s ground provides varied food sources for the birds. Sol Seeker Farm produces both eggs and broilers for meat. One vital resource in the farm business succession was continued access to the farmers’ markets historically served by the farm.

Kaley and Edgar had a slow start in 2014, but certainly not in life, as they had twins while also starting the farm. Clearly they had their hands full, yet they doubled their gross income in 2015 and then increased it another 64% in 2016. Despite their rapid growth, they learned early on that expanding into more farmers’ markets did not necessarily justify increased production of broilers. Unfortunately they overproduced chickens, resulting in high operating costs, but came to understand that they could have addressed the issue by diversifying market channels to include local retail or wholesale accounts. With a FarmLink operating loan starting in 2015, they were able to purchase chicken feed and other supplies in bulk, and enjoy significant cost savings they would not have without the financing.

FarmLink helped farmers gain access to a total of 732 acres in 2016, with more than half in the Central Coast region resulting from one client’s purchase of 180 acres.

Eisenhut Family Farm, Colfax

IMPACTS OF THE WORK

California FarmLink offers crucial resources to help beginning and limited-resource farmers succeed. The provision of capital and technical assistance is tailored to the unique risks of farming. As a CDFI, FarmLink is positioned to access low-interest capital from a variety of sources, and successfully deploy it into rural communities home to farmers with few options for financing. Through 2016, FarmLink’s 168 loans have helped small businesses and farmers across California with:

  • 764 jobs sustained, including 196 new jobs created;
  • 30% average annual increase in gross business revenue by repeat borrowers;
  • 10% average annual increase in family income by repeat borrowers; and
  • Significant improvements in farmers’ business record-keeping, preparation of financial statements, and understanding of credit management.

Like other CDFIs that provide access to capital in areas of the California economy where it is most scarce, FarmLink and its borrowers benefit from low-cost capital available through both public and private sources. Growing social investment in FarmLink’s loan funds by banks, individuals and private foundations has been fundamentally important for beginning farmers. Additionally, The CDFI Fund has been a crucial source of support for FarmLink’s growth. According to the Community Development Bankers Association, the CDFI Fund is, “one of the Federal government’s best market-based strategies for leveraging private dollars to restore economic vitality.”

FarmLink also places great value on partnerships with the USDA Farm Service Agency and other nonprofits and CDFIs that have participated in larger loans, including RSF Social Finance and the Northern California Community Loan Fund. Together with these partners, FarmLink has organized co-lending arrangements to meet the needs of borrowers, especially those seeking mortgages for the purchase of farmland.

California FarmLink and USDA leaders meet with a farmer in Monterey County.

GROWING ACCESS TO CAPITAL FOR BEGINNING FARMERS

Diverse crops and production systems require flexible capital designed for beginning farmers.

High-value strawberry production in Monterey County requires access to significant amounts of capital.

COIN: PUBLIC SOCIAL IMPACT INVESTING IN CALIFORNIA

FarmLink builds opportunities to collaborate with new kinds of investors, and public policy can support our ability to capitalize beginning and limited-resource farmers while growing sustainable rural economies. FarmLink is also passionate about creating partnerships that support access to land and help secure land tenure. This requires growing the amount of capital available, and establishing diverse pathways to ownership for beginning farmers.

The landscape of California agriculture is aging, and diversifying. Recent demographic trends reveal increasing participation by minority and low-income farmers in the industry, while the current farming generation is shifting toward retirement. Capital access programs and other services that assist farmers with ownership must respond to changing dynamics. Lending programs within USDA and the farm credit system are working to adapt. In 2016, demand in California for the capital necessary to acquire land and operational finance far outstripped its supply, especially as more beginning farmers and ranchers request assistance. It is time to make more capital available to an emerging, diverse generation of farmers, and California is well-positioned to lead the nation.

For the past 20 years, the State of California’s Department of Insurance has managed the California Organized Investment Network (COIN), which offers state tax credits for investments in California CDFIs like FarmLink. The credits allow corporations to reduce state income tax liability by an amount equal to 20% of the total capital provided to a certified CDFI, at 0% interest over a term of five years. COIN has been utilized by the insurance and financial services industries to invest in community development across California. It is essentially a public social impact investment made possible with resources that would typically be invested elsewhere by the companies which participate in COIN on a voluntary basis.

In 2016, FarmLink’s application to be certified and eligible for COIN investments resulted in sustainable agriculture being added as an eligible purpose for green investments through COIN. Building on our collaboration over several years, Rabobank, N.A. provided a $1.5 million loan to FarmLink for the purpose of growing its available capital for lending to farmers.

Despite unanimous passage of an extension of COIN during the 2016 legislative session, Governor Brown ultimately vetoed the measure along with other tax credits. He cited a constrained budget environment and considered tax credits equivalent to spending. This effectively dissolved future opportunities to steer COIN capital into low-income communities, beginning farmers and sustainable agriculture. Policymakers and CDFI advocates are working toward solutions.

Blue House Farm, Pescadero

GOING FORWARD

In 2017, FarmLink is working with fellow COIN stakeholders such as the California Reinvestment Coalition, Northern California Community Loan Fund and other CDFIs to educate beneficiaries and policymakers about the importance of reauthorizing COIN or creating new, similar incentives for investment in California’s under-served communities.

COIN stakeholders hope to work with the Assembly and Senate, and the Insurance Commissioner, to explore options to make COIN part of the state’s budget. Unfortunately there was no appropriation for COIN in the 2017-2018 budget so the program will remain unfunded at least through this fiscal year.

On behalf of beginning and limited-resource farmers, and rural, farm communities, FarmLink is working to establish a way to continue delivering public social impact investments in California. If you’re interested in joining or supporting this work, please contact us.

California FarmLink

303 Potrero Street Suite 29-201

Santa Cruz, CA 95060

(831) 425-0303

Narrative by Nathan Weller, Ali Robinson, and Gary Peterson, California FarmLink

Photos by Liya Schwartzman and other FarmLink staff

© 2017 California FarmLink

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