Co-op offers farmers loans for produce

Teresa Retzlaff and Packy Coleman, owners of 46 North Farm in Olney, Ore., have provided plant starts and produce to the Astoria Co+op for the past seven years, becoming one of the first local producers to work with the grocery.

The co-op recently launched a microloan program for farmers, starting with $1,500 to help 46 North install more covered areas to protect flowers from the weather.

Retzlaff described the loan as similar to community-supported agriculture, in which customers prepay farmers in the winter and receive produce throughout the harvest season.

The co-op wanted more flowers for the new store opening later this year in Mill Pond, and Retzlaff wanted to grow more flowers. She estimated it would cost $1,500 to build four 100-foot caterpillar tunnels to protect her flowers from the rain and allow the farm to plant earlier in the spring.

“A lot of times when you’re starting out you don’t just have that lying around,” she said.

Retzlaff and Coleman constructed the tunnels in April using local materials and began taking between $100 and $300 off of each invoice on the plant starts and produce they brought to the co-op, paying off their loan in full earlier this month.

Danny Rasmussen, produce manager for the co-op, said the store is trying to support local farmers and expand its selection of local food in the new location. At peak season, the co-op can source nearly half of its produce directly from farmers, he said.

“We’ll take this on a case-by-case basis,” he said of the loans. “I would like to do one farm again next year. We’d like to extend these loans to farms who have a track record of delivering great products to the co-op. These farms will also need to show us a plan for how a loan can help grow their business.”

The support is crucial for small farmers, who often have difficulty obtaining help from banks and the USDA, Retzlaff said. She has seen a growth in state support for small farms, exemplified by Oregon State University’s Center for Small Farms & Community Food Systems. She and Jared Gardner are planning a local chapter of the support group National Young Farmers Coalition.

“It’s hard, because (with) smaller farms, your cost of production is higher,” Retzlaff said. “Usually your cost of land is higher, especially if you’re starting from scratch.”

But smaller, local farms provide fresher food and a closer connection with customers, she said, while investing locally. “That money keeps circling around and getting reinvested,” she said.