Vt. farmer helped by donations pays it forward - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Vt. farmer helped by donations pays it forward

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Aaron Locker has made his living on this land in Warren for the last five years. He leases it from the Vermont Foodbank and pays his rent with vegetables. But when Tropical Storm Irene hit, he couldn't keep up his end of the deal. While the water only lasted for a few hours, when it washed away it took everything with it.

"You lose that fertile layer and things don't really grow, certainly in the same way. There were also places that washed away 12 feet down. It was gone and ended up in the Sugarbush snowmaking pond on the other side of the river," said Locker of Kingsbury Market and Garden.

Locker lost his soil and some of his land fell into the river. He needed help fast. So he turned to the Vermont Farm Fund, created by Pete Johnson of Pete's Greens.

"Because they gave me a loan on almost a handshake in the matter of days and it was interest-free," Locker said.

"It's not actually literally a handshake; we keep it as simple as possible. We do have some forms you have to fill out, but we want it to be not an arduous process. We want it to be very straightforward," Pete Johnson explained.

Elena Gustavson of the Center for an Agricultural Economy helps oversee this fund. She describes it as community-based lending. No collateral required, just financial statements and trust that the borrowers will live up to their end of the deal. So far, all but one have kept that promise.

"To have someone like Pete's Greens come forward and very enthusiastically say here's the money, let's make this simple, let's make this quick, let's make it helpful. It was a very exciting project to be a part of," Gustavson said.

Reporter Molly Smith: Was that something you thought of or did someone approach you about doing that?

Pete Johnson: No, I thought of it, mostly out of this overwhelming sense of guilt and all this money being given to us and not feeling comfortable just keeping it.

Pete's Greens "seeded" the fund with $40,000 of donations. Other agencies and individuals have also given money to the fund. So far $190,000 has been loaned out to 22 different farmers.

Aaron Locker received a $10,000 loan.

"Our soil needed a lot of work and so it initially allowed us to buy this big pile of manure and start our soil building here. That was probably half of it. And a lot of it went toward cash flow," Locker said.

As farmers transition out of a post-Irene emergency state, the farm fund continues on its intended path of funding innovative ideas for increasing local food output in Vermont.

"Part of why we've kept it a fairly loose definition is because we really want the farmers to come to us and show us what it is they're doing that's innovative," Gustavson said.

Locker says his farm is 80 percent recovered from Irene and this September the loan will be repaid. Now, that borrowed money will go to another farmer in need. He says he isn't jealous of the attention Pete Johnson's farm saw when his farm lost the barn to a fire two years ago. He says that's what Vermonters do-- take care of their own.

"He is kind of like the poster boy for the new Vermont agriculture. He is really important that way; he's kind of like a pioneer," Locker said.

"We are growing up," Johnson said. "We are really making strides in the state. Now we are being recognized for doing that."

Johnson plans to put all $160,000 donated to him into the fund, eventually.

Molly Smith: Is the money sitting in a nest egg right now and slowly contributing? How does that work?

Pete Johnson: It doesn't exist right now.

Molly Smith: You spent it?

Pete Johnson: Oh, yeah! We spent it. And as we are earning money, we are contributing back into the farm fund.

A revolving door of donations to fund the future of farming in Vermont.

There are two loan programs available through the Vermont Farm Fund: no-interest emergency loans and the innovative loan program which offers 3 percent interest loans. Most people are required to pay the money back within two years of borrowing. Click here for more information.

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Pete's Greens first Vt. farm to win small business award

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