Zero-interest Microloan Program For Local Farmers

Everybody gets by with a little help from their friends, including – maybe even especially – farmers and food producers who are trying to go from low-key to profitable on Vancouver Island. That’s where a new zero-interest microloan program brokered by the Island Chefs Collaborative (ICC) and FarmFolk CityFolk comes in; for-profit farmers and processers who might not normally qualify for credit can borrow up to $10,000 for a project or piece of equipment that will take their business to the next level.


“As far as selling the benefits of local food to people, we’re rocking it on this island,” says Jason Found, festival organizer and loan administrator with ICC. “The demand is there but we’re low on supply; there’s not enough farmers, not enough food. With this loan program, we’re looking to scale everything up to grow our food system and help solve this island’s food supply issue.”


First up to the plate is Bejay Mills of Saltspring Sunrise Premium Edibles, a processor who cold-presses organic oil from hazelnuts in a converted shipping container on his parents’ Saltspring Island farm.  Inspired by the 100-mile diet concept, Mills began rooting around to find locally-produced cooking oil.  It didn’t exist—but the possibility to produce it did—and so he and his parents set to work pressing hazelnuts a year ago, now distributing their product in more than 25 stores in Western Canada.


“When we make the oil, there’s a by-product – a press meal that we’ve developed into a gluten-free hazelnut flour,” explains Mills, an agricultural consultant in Saanich who was approved for ICC’s first ever microloan in late May. “It’s a bit heavier but it works well; we’ve taken it to a few bakeries around Victoria and people seem keen.”


So keen, in fact, that the Royal Colwood Golf Club will be using Mills’ hazelnut flour in their shortbread at the ICC Food Fest on June 10.  After this premiere, the flour will go through nutritional testing before being packaged, labelled and shipped—all costly components that the $5,000 loan will fund. “It’s a real boost to help us get going,” says Mills.


Both walnut and pumpkin seed oil are possible next steps for the family business and the Mills, who currently source most of their seed stock from the Fraser Valley, will plant a hazelnut orchard on their own property this year.


Found believes that Mills will be the first of many emerging island-based food producers to borrow funds through the ICC program.


The money itself is lent from and entirely administered by VanCity but the loan criteria are simple: the funds must increase sustainable food production on Vancouver Island (or one of the Gulf Islands), meaning the money can go towards anything from tools to vehicles to plants.  VanCity charges a low interest rate during the loan’s 24-month repayment then the ICC cuts a cheque to refund all of the interest once the loan has been paid back in full.  The money to do this is raised entirely through ICC’s annual Foodfest and FarmFolk’s Feast of Fields.


“It’s really a self-serving program for the ICC,” Found explains. “Chefs want local food to use in their restaurants and we’re hoping these loans are the right direction to move in.”


By Melanie Tromp Hoover 

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