UNITY — Maine Harvest Credit Project recently announced it had reached a $2.4 million fundraising goal. The goal marked a critical milestone in becoming Maine’s 56th credit union. However, the concept behind the highly-specialized project is unlike any other credit union in the nation.
The project is slated to be the country’s first-ever deposit-taking institution focused on lending exclusively to farmers and food entrepreneurs. Once chartered, Maine Harvest will offer specialized loans and mortgages with a statewide goal to boost Maine’s growing economy.
Maine Harvest Organizer Group is made up of 15 individuals with varied skills and backgrounds. However, the 5-year old project is primarily the work of Advisory Board Chair Sam May and Project Director Scott Budde.
“Sam is a life-long Mainer. He became involved with Slow Money Maine and Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. Between the two organizations, Sam began to see the need and value of a financial institution for food producers,” said Budde.
Slow Money Maine is a network focused on connecting investors with local sustainable agriculture systems.
As for Budde, he has an extensive background in banking, consulting, and investment management.
“I worked with community banks and credit unions a lot. I really loved that work,” said Budde.
Someone once asked Budde if there was a financial institution focused on serving local food producers.
“I did some research and was surprised when nothing came back,” Budde said.
After about a year of working separately, Budde and May joined forces to work on the Maine Harvest Credit Project.
“Maine’s growing food economy needs access to capital. We’ve crisscrossed the entire state talking with Maine’s most hard-working farmers to learn what they need most to become competitive – better access to capital,” May said.
With the necessary fundraising complete, the group submitted its Federal Regulatory Application to charter a new credit union. The document was nearly 1,000 pages long.
“Starting a credit union isn’t easy; it takes a lot of time, money, paperwork, and dedicated people to guide the process,” said Todd Mason, Maine Credit Union League president and chief executive officer. “The people behind this have worked tirelessly.”
The MCUL board recently approved a significant donation, which put Maine Harvest over the funding finish line. Other fundraising commitments for the project came from a wide range of donors including Maine foundations, individual donors and a United States Department of Agriculture grant.
“All have seen the value of creating an institution for a better food system in Maine. Stronger local food systems are critical for improving environmental, community and personal health,” noted Budde. “Our credit union will be a key part of building the stronger system – one that can be replicated in other regions in America.”
Part of building a stronger food system is re-localizing food sources.
“Fifty or 100 years ago, the food people ate came from fairly local sources. Now it doesn’t. It comes from industrial food sources and many people think that’s a problem. One hundred years ago, there were more community institutions. Those are all gone now,” said Budde.
The hope is that Maine Harvest will reconnect local food suppliers with necessary funding in order to be sustainable and competitive.
“Our research estimates that there is about a $186 million financing gap among Maine farmers and food producers,” Amanda Beal, president and code enforcement officer of Maine Farmland Trust said in a press release. “Bridging that gap will keep farmers on their land, help others scale and grow and generally act as a catalyst for this entire industry,” Beal adds.
Once the charter is approved, the newly formed credit union will be run by a CEO, governed by a Board of Directors and owned by its members. Maine Harvest’s organizer group includes farmers, philanthropists and credit union experts. It also includes Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, the granddaughter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who in 1934 signed the Federal Credit Union Act.
“Maine Harvest is a very specialized credit union. This will not be a standard lending institution. Maine Harvest will provide loans to food producers and entrepreneurs,” explained Budde.
Maine Harvest will become part of MCUL and members will have access to shared branching and ATMs within its statewide network.
By spring, Maine Harvest plans to begin staffing and to hire a specialized loan officer that uniquely understands the needs within the agricultural sector. By June, Maine Harvest plans to open its headquarters in centrally located Unity.