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Non profits help local farms

Annabelle Lenderink pushs a seeder on her organic farm, La Tercera, in Bolinas. (Special to the IJ/Jean-Paul Horr)

Sierra Filucci
Marin IJ - 6/10/08

WHEN Annabelle Lenderink finishes up her day job at Star Route Farms, her workday isn't done.

She treks onto her leased 2.5 acres in Bolinas to work her own farm, a labor of love called La Tercera. She pulls weeds and checks the irrigation pipes that run along her rows of summer squash, fennel, escarole and seven kinds of radicchio.

Her operation, which includes another two acres in Petaluma, is known at some of the Bay Area's finest restaurants - such as Berkeley's Chez Panisse, Eccolo and Oakland's Pizzaiolo - for unusual produce, cultivated organically. 

Annabelle Lenderink holds brown mustard seeds. (Special to the IJ/Jean-Paul Horr)

Lenderink's farm - which rarely comes close to turning a profit - might not have been able to afford its irrigation hose if not for the help of the Sebastopol-based nonprofit California FarmLink, which became a model for a national pilot program in the 2008 federal farm bill passed by Congress on May 15.

Under the savings plan, Lenderink made regular deposits into a special fund; for every $1 she invested, FarmLink promised a $3 match.

The nearly $10,000 Lenderink, 48, netted helped her buy tools such as a tiller, hoes and a ripper, which, she said, "has three shafts that you drag through the soil."

Without the savings and fund-matching program, purchasing the equipment for her small-scale farm "would have been very hard," she said. But nearly as valuable as the cash, said Lenderink, was learning how to get a financial handle on her farm.

"The best part about it is there's a lot of education that goes with it. Financial stuff - margins and figuring out how much cash flow you have, record-keeping."

The educational component of the savings program, called individual development accounts, or IDAs, is a crucial part of the competitive program targeting low-income and minority farmers, said Steve Schwartz, executive director of California FarmLink.

Cash-flow projections, a business plan, tax preparation, cleaning up credit - these requirements of the program help farmers do "all the things to put them on solid financial footing," Schwartz said.

And the stronger the footing, the better position farmers are in to invest in their farms - buying bits and pieces of equipment, like Lenderink did - or to make a down payment on land or a tractor. And this investment can have more than a purely economic effect.

"Once you have a home or a tractor or trees in the ground, you change the way you look at your future," Schwartz said.

The future of Jesse Kuhn's Petaluma-based Marin Roots farm is cooler, thanks to the IDA savings program that helped him buy a new refrigeration unit.

"It's way more efficient," said Kuhn, 33. After working with Lenderink at Star Route Farms, Kuhn went off on his own five years ago to grow lettuce, spinach, arugula, baby carrots, tomatoes and strawberries on 12 acres. His organic produce sells at Whole Foods, Mill Valley Market and Fairfax's Good Earth grocery.

Like many small farmers, Kuhn struggled to pay the bills for the first several years. But his farm is on more stable ground, in part because of the funds and skills he gained through California FarmLink's IDA.

"It's a really beneficial program," he said. "It's especially good for somebody who started to have a career in agriculture and started to get a business going - to help build a business from scratch."

California FarmLink, which has a primary focus of connecting beginning farmers with affordable land, has been around since 1998. Its IDA program has, for the past five years, helped 25 rookie farmers in 13 California counties buy equipment, supplies or land.

Lenderink is one of three Marin farmers to benefit from the program. Five others are in Sonoma County. Funding to match savings has come from banks including Wells Fargo and Westamerica.

As part of a network of farmer advocacy organizations, California FarmLink worked with lawmakers to bring its program to a national audience. Schwartz said he hopes the federal funding will expand FarmLink's program to help up to 250 California farmers in the next five years.

The farm bill's IDA program - the first to specifically target farmers - would spend $5 million a year and help about 400 farmers and ranchers across at least 15 states, said Carol Wayman, senior legislative director of Corporate Enterprise Development, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization specializing in IDA development.

The program, which supporters hope will receive federal funding, would provide a two-to-one matching program.

IDAs have been around - as both federally managed programs and nonprofit projects - for about 10 years, Wayman said. Nationwide, there are 540 nonprofit programs helping 73,000 savers to start or support small businesses like child-care services or property management, or to pay for college education or a home down-payment, Wayman said.

The program received support from Sen. Barbara Boxer, who said, through her press secretary, "The next generation of farmers is going to play a critical role in U.S. agriculture, especially in meeting the growing demand for organic and sustainable food. The (IDA) pilot program is designed to build on California's successful efforts to help beginning farmers build assets and manage their finances. It's a smart investment in the nation's rural communities."

Wayman added, "What we've found is you provide the carrot of matching people's savings and you provide the education, and you help build the local economy at the same time."

Contact Sierra Filucci via e-mail at sfilucci@marinij.com