A Different Kind of Sustainability

By Sarah Fritschner

Ben Abell
Ben Abell

Ben Abell often goes against convention. Unlike many Kentucky farmers, he didn’t grow up on a farm, and has never grown tobacco. And though the average age of farmers is over 60, Ben is just 30, and has already been farming several years. In addition, he has decided to become a certified organic produce grower, while chicken, beef and grain are the main moneymakers in Kentucky.

In the last couple of years, Ben has earned part of his income selling butternut squash and sweet potatoes to a company that processes the fresh produce into frozen. The frozen vegetables (packaged with a picture of Ben on the label) are sold to public schools, state parks and other institutions where the cost or goods matters. Restaurant chefs especially love the pureed butternut during autumn soup season: they just pour and add flavorings.

But even 10,000 pounds of butternut squash and sweet potatoes, priced competitively to encourage large purchases, won’t earn Ben a living. To make the good income that anyone wants – that pays a mortgage, buys a new car every decade or so, gets a college education for the kids — requires many more tons to be planted, harvested and sold. To sell tons of sweet potatoes, you can’t charge farmers-market prices.

To be a “sustainable” farm, Ben must earn enough to stay there year after year. Not many people mind paying a little more for locally grown, but only a few can pay a lot more. To make a decent living, Ben must farm as efficiently as he can to grow tons of produce, so his prices are affordable to hospitals, schools and convention centers.

“Efficiency” and “cheap” are the buzzwords of the conventional food industry that local-food lovers want to avoid. But if a local farmer like Ben can improve efficiency without exploiting resources, he makes his great food available to more people.

As a result, Ben is taking advantage of an unconventional loan program. Kiva Zip is a project that enables all citizens to become lenders, by grouping small, personal loans (as low as $5) into 0%-interest bundles. Ben gets 6 months to begin paying back the loan, and the lenders are repaid over 36 months.

With a $10,000 loan, Ben can buy sweet potato harvesting equipment that makes farming more efficient, allowing him to not only increase the amount of potatoes he harvests, but allow the hand picking to be done where it’s needed: more lucrative tomatoes. A Kiva Zip loan will increase Ben’s overall efficiency, which keeps all his vegetable prices competitive. With profits from his increased harvest, Ben pays back the loan.

This year, Ben has signed on to grow more than 20,000 pounds of sweet potatoes. A no-interest Kiva Zip loan will allow Ben to earn a better living, making his farm more sustainable, and making our local food system more sustainable, while making locally-grown food available to a wider population. I’ve loaned money to Ben. If you’d like to help Ben harvest sweet potatoes more efficiently so that they are available to more of Kentucky’s public school children, you can find and fund his project.