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Grocers offer money for growing food


Low interest loans for producers spurs local food movement



By PATTY MAMULA



For the Capital Press



Producers and farmers' markets are getting financial help from an unlikely source -- grocery stores.



Whole Foods supports local producers with low interest loans and New Seasons supports local markets with grants.



Whole Foods, with more than 270 stores in North America and the United Kingdom, set aside $10 million for loans in 2006 and disbursed its first loan in 2007.



New Seasons Market, a Portland chain with nine stores and a 10th scheduled to open this fall, started its grant program in 2008 with funds from sales of its Pacific Village private label products -- beef, chicken, butter, milk and pork -- all sourced from regional farms.



"We are in the third year of this program and each year we have set aside a minimum of $50,000," said Claudia Knotek, community relations manager. "If sales are up and one percent is higher than that, we will give more. It looks like that may be the case this year."



New Seasons decided to give the grants to farmers' markets because the growers who sell there are also their suppliers.



"We don't view it as competition, but as cooperation," said Knotek.



This year New Seasons is supporting 16 markets with grants that promote sustainability and accessibility and average about $2,500.



The Lake Oswego market, a grant recipient, now uses only compostable cups and large water containers on-site and does not allow bottled water.



Many markets have used the grants to help set up wireless Electronic Benefits Transfer systems. When markets accept debit, food stamp and credit cards, overall sales increase as the number of shoppers increases.



A couple of years back, the Lents market implemented a matching program with its grant money. The market matches up to $5 of every purchase from a client with an Oregon Trail card. If a shopper uses the food stamp card for a $10 purchase, she would receive a $5 match.



The idea caught on at several other markets in Montavilla, Oregon City, Hollywood, Hillsboro and Forest Grove.



New Seasons occasionally makes loans to local producers. They recently extended a loan to Rieben Farm, one of its pork suppliers, to shift production to a new facility.



"New Seasons offered a substantial loan at no interest to help construct the new hoop structure with a straw bedding system," Greg Rieben said. "They fully supported a change in the way we raised our pigs."



Rieben sells about 1,000 market hogs a year from his farm in Banks, Ore., to New Seasons.



Whole Foods makes loans from $1,000 to $100,000 for expansion projects and capital expenditures, not operating expenses. The funds can be used for things like purchasing more animals, buying new equipment or converting to organic production.



Last November in Portland, Lisa Herlinger Esco received a loan for $20,000 to expand Ruby Jewel Treats, handmade ice cream sandwiches. She used the money to upgrade and expand her freezer and to pay for new packaging.



Esco started selling her ice cream treats at the Portland Farmers' Market in 2004 and quickly expanded. Her products are now available at Whole Foods in Oregon, California, Washington, Colorado and at Market of Choice, New Seasons, several restaurants and her new Scoop Shop in north Portland.



She learned about the loans from a Whole Foods employee. That's common, said media relations representative Liz Burkhart, since most loan recipients are already doing business with Whole Foods.



Esco said the application process took several months and she was awarded the amount requested at a 5 percent interest rate.



BTTR Ventures in Emeryville, Calif., received a loan to expand its mushroom-growing business into a larger space. They use spent coffee grounds as a substrate for growing shiitake mushrooms and grow-your-own mushroom kits.



Other grant recipients have included grass-fed beef farmers in Texas, organic vegetable farms in Minnesota and lettuce growers in North Carolina.



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