Maine’s first credit union dedicated exclusively to supporting the state’s small farms and food businesses is celebrating its grand opening Tuesday after nearly five years of planning and fundraising.

Maine Harvest Federal Credit Union promises to offer a previously unavailable source of financing for farmers, food processors, cheese-makers, craft brewers and others. Based in Unity, the credit union aims to remove one of the biggest obstacles to growth for independent food and beverage producers by providing small land mortgages and equipment loans.

Maine Harvest founder and CEO Scott Budde first announced his plan to create the specialized credit union in May 2015. Initially, he hoped to open the credit union within two years, but the process of forming a group of organizers, raising $2.4 million in startup capital and obtaining a charter from the National Credit Union Administration took longer than expected.

Maine has nearly 8,200 farms – more than any other state in New England, roughly 1.5 million acres of farmland and about 90 artisanal cheese producers. It also ranks third in the nation for number of craft breweries per capita with roughly 150 breweries.

Jessie Dowling holds baby goats at her Whitefield farm. She said she intends to refinance her government loans through the new Maine Harvest Credit Union. Gregory Rec/Staff photographer

Sarah Alexander, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said the credit union could be a game-changer for her industry in Maine. She hopes it will inspire other states to create similar institutions, as Maine Harvest is believed to be the first U.S. credit union of its kind.

“If a farmer is looking to buy a piece of equipment, for example, maybe they’re able to get a grant for part of it, or they’re able to get a government-backed loan for part of it, but they need that additional funding to be able to complete the sale or to finish the project,” Alexander said. “We see this especially as farmers are growing, maybe they have secured access to their land but they’ve already got a significant portfolio of debt that they’ve incurred, and they need to have additional investment in order to add processing to the farm or add another piece of equipment, and sometimes it can be difficult for them to obtain that.”

Having a credit union that understands the agricultural sector and is willing to work with farmers on long-term financing will provide a tremendous benefit to the industry and help it grow in Maine, she said.

Maine Harvest will serve the employees and roughly 13,000 members of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and the Maine Farmland Trust, offering business loans to small farms, farmers and other food producers within their field of membership. The credit union said it plans to offer equipment loans of up to $45,000 and land-backed mortgages of up to $225,000.

Jessie Dowling, owner of Fuzzy Udder Creamery in Whitefield, said the ability to obtain credit union financing would free her business from government financing rules that sometimes force food producers to act against their own best interests.

For example, her cheese-making business is required to produce its own milk in order to be eligible for U.S. Department of Agriculture and Farm Service Agency financing, when purchasing the milk from a third party would be more cost-effective and allow the business to grow more quickly, she said.

Dowling said she plans to become a Maine Harvest customer and refinance her government-backed loans.

“When you’re just getting started, it’s really hard to make a go of it, and then other financial institutions look at you like you’re a three-headed monster because they don’t know how these farm-based (businesses) work, so it’s a lot easier when you’re working with someone who understands your business,” she said.


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