Blog: Jeff McCabe

Food, glorious, food... as long as it's local. Jeff McCabe is all about the stuff you put in your belly - where it comes from, how it's grown, and what you know about it. It's why he started the Selma breakfast salon and why he's involved with the Local Foods Summit and the Homegrown Festival. If you can't guess what Jeff will be blogging about you haven't read a thing we've just written.

Jeff McCabe - Post 3: Investing In Our Farms

How do banks start? We have about 8400 of them in the United States alone, and most started because there was a perceived need that was not being met by existing financial options. Some have been tied to region and others to specific niche markets. Yet lately, much of banking is associated with consolidation, impersonal bureaucracy, failure, and undeserved bailout.

Even banks that specialize in farming appear to have a very narrow focus on large farms that rely on government subsidies to grow surplus commodity crops like corn and soy. Mention small parcels, organic methods or even vegetables and you are likely to leave empty handed.

Consequently we have a unique need that is not currently being addressed, at least not at the level needed to transform our food system. We have the potential to produce fresh, healthy crops from underutilized farm land close to our cities while creating thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity which currently gets sent outside our region.

A token amount of funding has begun to enter our area from the USDA for conservancy and season extension associated with small scale farming projects. While eliminating subsidies to surplus commodity crops would likely do more to help small farmers than this direct aid, while saving taxpayer money and slimming our waistlines, nobody seems to be able to say no these days to entrenched lobbies. Instead they throw a few more dollars to try to address the consequences of flawed policies with drastic unintended consequences.

But these grants are only available to farms with a tack record of production and sales. There are hundreds of individuals, many recent graduates of organic farming programs, who would like to be starting farms in our area and have limited access to the capital required to get a foothold. Our traditional institutions, many of which are chartered to support local business and foster job and economic growth have not stepped up in any measurable ways to meet this need.

SPARK, our region’s business incubator and start-up lender, is not interested in any projects that involve "lifestyle companies" according to executive Skip Simms. This category is much broader than just the new small-scale farms that we will build, and includes restaurants, stores and your barbershop. These businesses do not represent a significant enough job creation potential evidently to deserve even passing interest. SPARK seems to be hoping to find the next google on it’s way up. Yet nothing in their model anticipates ways to keep these companies located in Washtenaw County.

Though we all hope that SPARK and other seed money organizations will be wildly successful in bringing us jobs that stay in the community, I have yet to find any public self-reporting showing the effectiveness of this investment of our money. Many of these start-ups will fail and default on loans while others will take their fledgling successes and beat up some other regional development administration for better tax breaks and other incentives to re-locate. This model is highly subject to a "race to the bottom" as each region grovels for highly mobile and elusive jobs.

Pfizer is one truly painful example of what happens when a community invests its future with companies that have little or no regional ties. The recent MEDC scandal is another example of the corruption and inefficiency that can occur when these development deals are not grounded in local relationships.

In comparison, farmers and other small scale food producers are literally tied to the fabric of the community. These projects will be collateralized with real property and will provide products that sustain us directly.

A small scale micro-credit program has emerged from the proceed of the FridayMornings@SELMA community breakfasts. Because the event location is donated and the entire workforce is volunteer, about 2/3 of the donations are available to lend. New farming infrastructure has been prioritized and hoop-houses have been identified as a key element in growing food year-round. The first round of loans in 2009 created 4000 sf of new four-season production capable of producing about $1000 worth of food per month. This event alone will fund the construction of 4 to 6 houses each year. The application process is currently open for May build dates. Dollar for dollar matching of breakfast proceeds, invested from community members at low interest rates will be the next multiplier of the impact this program has generated.

But it will take more hoops, and more than just hoops, to manifest the job creation and other benefits of new agriculture in our community. Whether we establish partnerships with existing lending institutions who hear the call for this important financial investment, or we build our own from our current modest efforts, tens of millions of dollars of investment will be ultimately be made to reach our 10% goals for local food sourcing. I hope you will consider the impact you can have, personally and professionally, by putting your assets to work in your own community.