Joel Alex wants more local grain for his fast-growing Blue Ox Malthouse in Lisbon Falls and he’s got farmers in Auburn and Leeds who want to grow it.

The hitch: They don’t have the right equipment or storage space for commercial-grade grain, and it’s a $5,000 to $20,000 investment to do it right.

That’s where Alex hopes the Maine Harvest Credit Project will come in.

The project aims to create the newest credit union in Maine and the first in the country dedicated to lending to businesses in the food economy. It’s taking the next step in the process, filing for a state charter, on Monday.

If approved, it would be the state’s 59th credit union.

Maine Harvest has raised $1.4 million of the $2.4 million capital needed to open. If supporters can raise the rest swiftly, and get regulatory approval, it could be making loans in 2018, said Sam May, the advisory board chairman.

“The $1 million is really the key here — we can have a charter in six months and be operational within a few months,” May said. “(Maine) has an appreciation for what the local food system is. We think Maine has an opportunity to be a leader here.”

Roots of the idea go back as far as four years. Fundraising began 18 months ago. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and Maine Farmland Trust are behind the effort.

May said he anticipates the new statewide credit union would loan $1.5 million the first year for needs including equipment and farm mortgages, growing to $2 million annually in a few years. Interest rates might be between 5 and 7 percent. 

Project Director Scott Budde said Maine is a natural state for the idea because of its areas of affordable farmland, active industry supporters and growing agricultural interest.

Looking at niche sectors, Maine is  poised to keep growing in markets like cheese-making and craft brewing, May said.

“Maine is now well over 1 million pounds a year in very high value-added cheese; this is not surplus government cheddar from Wisconsin. This is $25-a-pound goat brie, and that million pounds, a lot of it is going outside of the state,” he said.

To keep growing, those businesses need capital, and traditional banks and credit unions can be leery of lending without having an expert on staff who specializes in agriculture.

There are existing lenders that target farmers, Budde said, but they tend to loan to large-scale operations.

Alex at Blue Ox Malthouse said he’s watched the credit union’s formation with interest. He has worked with more than 90 brewers and distillers, actively supplying more than half of those. He works with a lot of Aroostook County growers for his grain now.

“It’s really exciting to see this happening,” Alex said. “One of the things we’ve been trying to help do is identify what resources there are available to our growers to help them meet those infrastructure needs. That’s a place where the Maine Harvest Credit Union really comes in and is filling a really needed and missing place in the food system.”  

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Joel Alex, founder of Blue Ox Malthouse in Lisbon Falls, works on a small batch of beer in Lewiston last summer. Alex supports the idea behind the Maine Harvest Credit Project, which is looking to create a credit union that loans to Maine businesses in the food economy. He’s hoping it would allow local farmers to upgrade their equipment and start supplying his malt house with more high-quality grain for craft brewing.

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