By Karla Milosevich
In 2011, The FruitGuys’ Farm Steward program financed a $3,000 no-interest loan to Baia Nicchia Farm and Nursery in Sunol, CA. Baia Nicchia is a family farm, run by Fred Hempel and Jill Shepard, that grows heirloom tomatoes, specialty squash, peppers, and herbs. FruitGuys volunteers also helped plant tomato seedlings last May.
While the farm’s main crops are tomatoes, sweet peppers, squash, and herbs, our West Coast TakeHome produce box customers were lucky recipients of their delicious and unusual “swinter” squash, the Potimarron Jeune, and some beautiful heirloom Red Flint corn. Soon we will have their tomatoes and peppers, either mixed peppers or Dolce di Minervino, and fresh mint.
Microloans were pioneered in India and other countries to help farmers and small businesses have working capital to be successful or to expand their businesses and then slowly re-pay the money. We caught up with Fred to see how the tomatoes fared and how the loan helped.
In farming, so much depends on the weather, and, unfortunately, last year’s unusually cold Northern California winter killed most of the tomato seedlings we helped plant. The good news is that those plants did produce seed that Baia Nicchia will use later.
“Tomato plants are only grown for one season. Even near the coast, disease gets them before the second year. Inland, where we are, they are killed by freezing nights,” says Fred. The rows of plants that FruitGuys helped plant last year were “part of our breeding program – which means that the best fruit was harvested from some of the best plants, and seed was saved. This year, that seed was used to grow out new breeding rows.”
Fred said the microloan was a big pre-harvest help. “The micro-loan substituted, in part, for a farm loan. It helped us early in the year before our receipts for our main crops came in.”
The FruitGuys Farm Steward Program started in 2008 and aims to promote sustainable farming practices and promote economic stability for family farms. Past projects at farms include donated bee hives, pollinator hedge rows, fruit tree grafting, owl and bat box installations, and microloans. “We are making a commitment to the crop’s success in the short term and an investment in the farm’s success for the future,” Chris Mittelstaedt, founder and CEO of The FruitGuys, said of the microloan.