State Builds Farming Into Economic Development

10/1/2012

The Becker family courtesy of Tomm Becker. (view larger image)

The Becker family courtesy of Tomm Becker.

Tomm and Trilby Becker will feed 100 families again this winter from four passive solar greenhouses, or hoophouses, on their small farm near Ann Arbor. It’s the third year the Beckers have supplied their pay-in-advance Community Supported Agriculture members year-round. It’s also the third year of increasing profitability at startup Sunseed Farm, which employs three people full time during the season, and one full-time and one part-time year-round in addition to Tomm and Trilby.

“What the ‘hoops’ enable us to do is go from a business model that traditionally only covers about 20 weeks of the year to one that covers a 48-week season,” Becker said. “It gives us a year-round farm with year-round income. We could not do that without the hoophouses.”

Becker adds that Sunseed Farm’s investments in the season-extending technology would have been difficult for a beginning farm to make without local partners and state and federal agencies.

For example, a low-interest (4%) loan from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation toward the third and fourth hoophouses allowed for interest-only payments in the first year and twice-annual payments after that over the loan’s six-year term.

The payment flexibility is important because it allows the Beckers to begin making money before starting to repay the money. “That’s really important for any startup business in terms of cash flow needed to operate,” Becker said.

Katharine Czarnecki is Community Programs Manager at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. A few years ago she pulled together some colleagues and some resources to start creating space within MEDC for farm and food system development needs.

The result is a set of efforts known as MEDC’s Farm to Food program. “At MEDC we’re working with communities to develop amenities and attract young people,” she said. “Farm to Food evolved from there.”

Here is the list of MEDC Farm to Food efforts and their current status:

Program Name

Purpose

Awards to Date

Current Status

Passive Solar Systems

Finance season extension

$420,544 to 22 farms

Applications ongoing

Community Development Block Grant/Farm to Food

Grants toward 3- and 4-season farmers’ markets

$1.5 million to 7 projects

Next round: 2013

Urban Farm to Food

Support for operating costs

$600,000 to 15 projects

Completed