Monday, May 05, 2008

Diary of a Young Farmer: Zoe looks into a USDA loan

In her Diary of a Young Farmer, on the Edible Portland site, writer Zoe Bradbury logs her adventures trying to return to her farming roots. In the latest funny episode, she looks into the possibility of a USDA loan.
The next bad news: the loan amount they could offer me, explained Jim [the regional Farm Service Agency agent], would be determined according to my projected income, which they calculate by multiplying my predicted crop yields by the state commodity prices for each crop.

“Huh,” I said, “So what are the state commodity prices this year?”

Jim began reading off the list: “Carrots, 14 cents a pound. Asparagus, 45 cents a pound. Winter squash, 8 cents a pound. Strawberries, 50 cents a pound. Broccoli, 33 cents a pound. Cabbage, 4 cents a pound.”

I did some quick math while he rattled off the numbers. On my 2.5 acres, growing about 25 different crops and selling them at the state commodity prices, it looked like I would gross about $4,900 for the whole year – which would make me eligible to borrow a few hundred dollars from FSA. Maybe enough to buy a stack of Megabucks tickets and hope for better luck from the lottery than the USDA.

“Um…Jim,” I said slowly, “I think I might be farming on a different planet. We’re talking about a few intensive acres, and I’ll be selling my stuff direct, not through a brokerage or a distributor. It’s possible that I’ll get 10 times those prices by selling to local markets here.”

He told me that if I could prove that I’d received those higher prices for my crops for the past three consecutive years, then they could project my income based on those numbers instead.

“But, Jim,” I said, “this is my first year in business. I don’t have three years of records yet.”

Jim paused and his voice sounded regretful. “Then all we have is the state commodity prices.”
Of course, there is no way to write the rules for USDA loans to give Jim more flexibility, while at the same time maintaining program integrity. Like a character in a Greek tragedy, poor Jim is doomed by powers beyond his control to be the villain of this story.