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Local farmers turn to crowd-sourced loans to increase infrastructure, production

Friday - 7/25/2014, 10:08am  ET

Dove.JPG
John Dove stands in front of one of his three high tunnels at his Woodbine, Maryland farm. Dove is a recent recipient of a Kiva Zip loan. He pays zero-interest on a crowd-sourced loan and gets to expand his farm's infrastructure by building another high tunnel. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)
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WASHINGTON - Four years ago, John Dove entered into one of the most difficult career fields in the U.S.; he became a farmer.

On his 10-acre farm in Woodbine, Maryland, Dove grows a little bit of everything - - tomatoes, squash, Swiss chard, potatoes and radishes, to name a few -- all without the use of chemicals, pesticides or fungicides.

"It's just sunshine, water and a little love," says Dove, who appropriately named his operation Love Dove Farms.

Over the years, Dove expanded his operation little by little. During his first year, he grew on one acre of land and sold to one farmers market. Now, he's growing on four acres, selling at four farmers markets and running a CSA program.

"We're learning as we're going what works, what doesn't work, the best ways to do things, the best ways to manage things," he says.

Part of managing the farm is figuring out how to pay for labor, equipment and other agricultural needs.

"As a farmer, you need to keep investing into your company, and you need to have enough resources to be able to go ahead and do that," says Dove, 29.

"Because if you don't have the $2,000 to invest into [infrastructure], then you're going to have to keep doing things more manually, which costs you more time and labor and you can't prioritize your time elsewhere, which might make you more money."

But having upfront cash is a hurdle for most small farmers -- especially during the colder months of the year when there's little produce to sell. According to the USDA's Census of Agriculture, 75 percent of the nation's 2.1 million farms sold less than $50,000 of agricultural products in 2012; 57 percent had sales less than $10,000.

And despite limited revenue, the amount of money it takes to run a farm continues to increase. Between 2007 and 2012, agricultural production costs rose 36 percent, the census reports.

In the past, Dove applied for grants and relied on his own funds to build up his farm's infrastructure. But recently, he used a more modern technique for obtaining cash quickly; he turned to crowdsourcing.

At the encouragement of local nonprofit FRESHFARM Markets, Dove launched a campaign on Kiva Zip -- a website through which lenders make small microfinance loans to small business owners and entrepreneurs. The loans are zero-interest, and the borrower pays the lenders back after a six-month grace period. Similar to other crowdsourcing sites, lenders can offer up anywhere from $5 to hundreds of dollars.

In a matter of weeks, Dove raised enough money from friends and strangers to build a new structure that helps him increase crop production without having to drastically increase labor. He built a high tunnel with a makeshift greenhouse.

"I knew I needed to invest somehow into a greenhouse to keep my plants warm; that's the biggest thing," says Dove, who has already started paying his lenders back.

The multi-purpose high tunnel/greenhouse, which looks like a long and thin, tented structure, enables Dove to start planting earlier in the season, even when there's still a risk for frost. This means he can sell more produce, earlier than normal harvest times, at the local markets.

"It extends your season. You can plant your tomatoes in here early, before the typical frost date is over and get a whole jumpstart on growing," Dove says. "It was the perfect amount of space I needed to start tomatoes and squash early on."

Dove also uses the new structure as an insurance policy. He planted tomatoes in the fields a little earlier than the recommended mid-May date because worst-case scenario, he had thousands growing in the warm high tunnel.

"It was a nice opportunity to not have to front all of that money in the wintertime when you have to be tight," he says.

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Sam Giffin is the market manager and volunteer coordinator for FRESHFARM Markets, a nonprofit that runs 13 D.C.-area farmers markets with its network of more than 150 farmers and producers.

Earlier in the year, Kiva Zip approached FRESHFARM about forming a partnership where FRESHFARM recommends and endorses responsible and innovative candidates, ideal for the Kiva Zip microfinance loans.

"We know dozens and dozens of small farmers who really have great ideas and don't have the money to put them into action," Giffin says. "Farmers don't want to be more in debt than they have to be."

Kiva Zip is a part of Kiva.org, a nonprofit organization that connects millions of lenders with microfinance opportunities in countries where traditional banking systems are not an option. Similar to Kiva Zip, those who receive loans through Kiva pay lenders back with zero interest, and lenders can choose to invest in agriculture, shelter, green ventures, conflict zones and other global categories.

So far, FRESHFARM has endorsed six local farmers and producers for Kiva Zip loans ranging from $2,500 to $10,000. The organization hopes to get that number up to 20 loans.

Mary Ellen Taylor, of Endless Summer Harvest, is another loan recipient Giffin and his coworkers at FRESHFARM Markets endorsed for Kiva Zip. Taylor grows hydroponic lettuce and microgreens at her farm in Purcellville, Virginia, and sells her produce at several area markets.

When she couldn't keep up with the growing demand for her microgreens, she decided the Kiva Zip crowd-sourced loan program would be a good way for her to expand her business.

She launched her Kiva Zip campaign to purchase a second microgreen machine and to give one of her employees more hours.

"I can get the system up and running and get revenue from it before I need to begin to pay, so it is just everything a farmer needs," says Taylor, who with the help of 85 lenders raised $5,000 in 14 days.

Microgreens are the first two leaves of any vegetable seed. They are commonly used by chefs to add a pop of color, and a pop of flavor, to dishes. But now the public is catching on to microgreens -- mostly for their health benefits.

"Nutritional science is now proving that [microgreens] have all of the nutrients and the flavor of the final mature plant," Taylor says. "So for instance, in an ounce of kale [microgreens], you get the equivalent of six cups of kale."

In addition to kale microgreens, Taylor grows lemon basil, onion and arugula microgreens. Using seeds planted on burlap, and an ebb-and-flow water system, the seeds sprout in four to six days. Taylor then harvests the greens gently with scissors.

Even with her new machine, Taylor anticipates the demand will continue to grow beyond what she is able to produce.

"I will sell out of these very quickly," she says. "This microgreen system will increase my revenue dramatically. It makes me feel good also because it's a loan. I'm going to give this back to all of these people who lent it to me through Kiva."

Maryland farmer Dove echoes the same sentiment.

"It's a very positive thing. People want to invest in something they believe in and that they're passionate about," he says. "And people are passionate about local food."

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