UNITY — Small farmers and food businesses in Maine will now have an easier time financing the equipment and land they need to operate.

A credit union that lends exclusively to those in the agriculture and food industries opened Tuesday afternoon in Unity. The Maine Harvest Federal Credit Union is the first of its kind in the state — and possibly the country.

The credit union hopes to close what the Maine Farmland Trust has identified as a $180 million financing gap for the state’s farmers and food producers, which officials said will increase the amount of crops farmers can produce, improve access to local produce and strengthen the local economy.

The organization is planning to offer equipment loans of up to $45,000 and land-backed mortgages of up to $225,000.

Jessie Dowling, second from left, is the owner of Fuzzy Udder Creamery and president of the Maine Cheese Guild. She is pictured next to Gov. Janet Mills, third from left, during a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday for Maine Harvest Federal Credit Union in Unity.

Jessie Dowling, who owns Fuzzy Udder Creamery in Whitefield, said being able to get funding through the new credit union will make her small cheesemaking business more sustainable.

When she started her business, Dowling relied on loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Farm Service Agency.

“The problem is they have a lot of rules on that financing,” Dowling said. “One of the rules that’s really impacted me was being required to produce 50% of my milk on-site, on a piece of land that was too small.

“I didn’t have enough time to actually produce the milk and make the cheese, and profitability was far away for a long time, so I have struggled by building my business basically backwards. Instead of doing what’s most profitable, I was doing what I had to do to keep the loan funding.”

She said refinancing her loans with Maine Harvest Federal Credit Union will allow her to buy her milk from local farmers so she and her five seasonal employees can focus on cheesemaking.

“That’s why I’m so excited,” Dowling said. “They’re going to understand small food producers, and they’re going to know that even if you’re not producing the farm product yourself, the fact that you’re going to buy that farm product from a local producer — you’re going to keep that farm alive by keeping them in business, and that’s what it’s all about.”

Rosa Libby, a Phillips homesteader, said the creation of the Maine Harvest Federal Credit Union will open the agricultural industry to people who otherwise would not be able to enter it.

“Farms can’t do anything without capital, but their capital is tied into the land. There’s no capital until harvest. There’s no capital until slaughter,” said Libby, who is also the secretary of Maine Harvest board.

“This credit union gives those farmers a chance to source capital to have a chance to expand in manners that they couldn’t afford to without our assistance. And this gives a chance to people who maybe could never even afford to farm even though it’s what they wanted to do in life. This can help them get that chance.”

Libby, who is the daughter of the late MOFGA executive director Russell Libby, said she is proud to “kick his legacy forward into the next era.” Russell Libby was a proponent of a credit union that supported Maine agriculture, Rosa Libby said.

A crowd gathers Tuesday for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Maine Harvest Federal Credit Union in Unity. Gov. Janet Mills is shown at the speaker’s lectern.

While the credit union is expected to boost many of Maine’s 7,600 farms, its membership has some limitations, according to founder and CEO Scott Buddle.

“We are not in a position to be able to work with cannabis and hemp needs a little more research,” he told the Morning Sentinel.

Buddle, who co-founded the credit union with Sam May, said the reason Maine Harvest will not work with cannabis is because of federal deposit insurance.

“You get into this conflict between state law and federal law and some of it is — there are some credit unions that have done some great work around that and Seaport Credit Union in Portland is one of them, but it’s not something that we can engage in right now,” Buddle said.

Maine Harvest has four full-time employees, two of whom are highly specialized lenders. Those individuals are Patty Duffy, a former agricultural loan officer at the Vermont Economic Development Authority, and Julia Jones, who has managed a farm in Massachusetts, worked for Dirt Capital Partners, which invests in sustainable farmlands, and just completed her master’s certification in environmental economics with a focus in agricultural economics at the University of New Hampshire.

“The highly specialized lenders — that’s the difference,” Buddle said. “We don’t have tellers, we’re not trying to replace anyone’s bank account, we’re not offering checking (accounts). It is a couple types of deposits to put your money where your mouth is, and then deploying it into those loans.”

Three of the four members of Maine’s congressional delegation attended the opening event Tuesday afternoon at 69 School St., the site of the new credit union. Carol Woodcock, from Sen. Susan Collins’ Bangor office, represented Collins, who was unable to make it to Unity.

“This is a great day for Maine,” said Sen. Angus King. “Maine’s agricultural economy is on the upswing; it’s a bright spot. For the first time in my memory, the average age of Maine farmers is going down (and) new people are coming in. … It really helps to have an organization like this that will know about farming, that will understand the way the process works — the fact that you have a big expenditure up front and no income for a while, and then the income comes in. Having a financial institution that is a part of the agricultural community I think is so important.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree, a longtime organic farmer, said she was excited to see the credit union come to fruition, as well as the corresponding growth of farming and agriculture across Maine and the United States.

Rep. Jared Golden also spoke, citing the need for better access to loans for farmers.

Gov. Janet Mills praised the growing diversity of Maine’s farm products and farmers.

“All around America,” Mills said, “people want locally grown food. They want organically grown food, they want to know exactly what’s in their food, they want to buy from a farmer who they can look in the eye, and that is the vision that this is going to support.”

Anne Roosevelt, granddaughter of former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, made the ceremonial first deposit in an ode to her ancestor, who established the federal credit union system with the signing of the 1934 Federal Credit Union Act.

Anne Roosevelt lives in Embden and is the former president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Northern New England.

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