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

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.