Pocket change helps cash-starved farmers

It happens almost daily now. You go to a store and pay for an item and the clerk asks if you’d like to round up to the next dollar to help any number of charitable causes.  A similar effort has been going on in Ashland for over a decade — the only  difference is that instead of charity, patrons have an opportunity to help local farmers grow their business.

The CHIP for Change program was launched in 2008 by the Chequamegon Food Co-Op in Ashland.  The concept is pretty simple. Patrons donate money at the register, which helps fund a microloan program.  Area farmers can then request up to $5,000 in an interest-free loan for equipment or other farm investments that can help increase produce.

Marketing and Member Service Manager Meagan Van Beest says the program was initially developed because a former general manager of the Chequamegon Food Co-operative recognized that demand far exceeded local supply. He felt that if the co-op would assist in helping local farms grow, it’d bring more produce into the store for customers and in turn boost the bottom line for farmers while also building supply for the store. 

“This program helps us front-load the local food and product system,” Van Beest says. “We view these loans as an investment because hopefully we cultivate the development of businesses that will eventually sell their products to us. We hang our hats on local and the more local the better.”

Since those early days, the program has grown to where on any given day 35-45 percent of customers are donating. Some days, that number even exceeds 50 percent. As of today, the Co-op has loaned out over $160,000 in micro-loans. Loans range anywhere from $350 to $5,000. 

“Our mission statement states that ‘Chequamegon Food Co-op exists so our community has an enhanced quality of life.’ What better way to enhance the quality of life than boosting the livelihoods of people who live in our community while also providing goods that our community at large can purchase and use,” Van Beest says.

For owner of Twisting Twig Gardens and Orchard Rob Hartman, this micro-loan program is helping him prepare for the future.

“This loan is allowing us the financial flexibility to invest in our orchard to create a new product from our farm apples for processing,” he explains. 

Hartman, who received a $4,050 loan, says the funds will be used for various tools on the farm utilized for orchard management and harvest.

“In future years, we hope to provide sustainably grown, unique varieties of apples to those who seek to make ciders and vinegars of exceptional quality.”

It isn’t just individual farmers who are taking advantage of this program. Bayfield Foods, which is a conglomeration of regional farms, recently received a $5,000 loan to increase their freezer capacity within the Bayfield Business Park. The group is utilizing a parcel within the park as a central aggregation and warehouse space for the Lake Superior CSA and other programs. 

Bayfield Foods president Dave Nortunen says the loan expedites the project, but also reflects a growing desire in the Chequamegon Bay area to be more self-reliant. 

“This loan is huge for our organization. It allows us to buy some of the freezer panels sooner than later. The no interest part is attractive. But, what’s even more exciting is the synergy we’re seeing in our community — there is a genuine effort to help each other where we can.” Nortunen goes on to say, “this is also a nice chance for co-op members to contribute to local farmers in a meaningful way.”

Nortunen himself has applied for and received loans for his own 600-acre beef farm and knows first hand how the program can make a difference for farmers.

“A lot of times in farming, cash flow is tied up in upfront expenses such as planting and machinery. It is nice to have this option that provides you some flexibility and allows you to build your business.”

In the end, Van Beest says this program ties back to the co-ops very reason for existing. 

“Our end statement is to ensure our community has access to healthy, organic, and locally produced goods along with a thriving local economy. Even if local businesses that receive micro-loans do not end up selling their products at the Co-op, they are still providing them to the community and increasing money in our local economy. That’s a win-win in our book.”

Beth Probst is a freelance writer based in Iron River.