Dorothy Suput, G92
Dorothy Suput, G92, with farmer Lee Straw
Life on the Farm
Farmers across New England have an ally in graduate alumna Dorothy Suput, G92.
The chickens are not happy. Disturbed, they flap their wings and propel their
small bodies across the barn floor, leaving clouds of dust and feathers in their
wake. It's difficult to tell what has set them off. It could have been triggered
by the arrival of Dorothy Suput, G92, and farm owner Lee Straw a few moments
earlier. Or maybe it's the dogged persistence of a photographer as she moves closer
and closer to the chickens in search of the perfect shot. But who really knows?
They are, after all, chickens and their behavior, at least on this day, will remain
Before the chickens came along, Lee Straw wasn't happy either. His barn was in
trouble. Built during the early 1900s, the structure had seen more than its share
of New England weather, with its roof suffering the most. If Straw didn't do
something he knew it was only a matter of time until the barn was lost.
"The roof was in such bad shape," says Straw, who owns and operates
Straw's Farm in Newcastle, Maine. "I couldn't put poultry or hay in the barn
because it would get wet."
Only a new roof, Straw believed, would save the barn and help his business remain
profitable. In 2006, he approached a handful of area banks about securing a loan
so he could hire some contractors. Each lender said the same thing.
And this is when Dorothy Suput got involved.
Farming, while rewarding for those who
have made it their life's work, isn't easy. The days are long. The work is difficult.
One day a tractor may break. Another day an animal may fall ill. Then there's the
weather, which can be unpredictable. Crops have been decimated by too much rain,
wiped clean by too little. Put together, these, and other factors, make farming a
constant challenge. To make matters worse, many farmers also have difficulty getting
loans and other types of financing.
"I went from a six-digit income to farming full time," says Lisa Richards,
who raises sheep, pigs, and chickens on her farm in Marlow, New Hampshire.
"The banks wanted to see enough meat orders to carry the payments on the loan
for three years. Restaurants don't place meat orders for three years. They are
looking for orders no longer than six months out. Also, the banks wanted to
place a value on my breeding stock, to see how valuable it was. They went to the
state agricultural website which stated that a normal, standard domestic sheep
was worth $20. The sheep that I have are Icelandic and valued at $400-$500 per
animal. The banks wanted to say that my breeding stock was worth $200, when it
was actually worth much more. The same thing happened with my pigs, which are
also a rare breed."
Richards, naturally, didn't get the loan.
Lisa Richards' experience is, unfortunately, all too common for small and
mid-scale farmers in the New England area. As defined by the U.S. Department
of Agriculture (USDA), small and mid-scale farms are those whose annual agricultural
sales do not exceed $250,000. These farms account for 90 percent of those in the
United States. They often employ environmentally friendly practices and tend to be
much smaller in acreage compared to larger farms, which can consist of hundreds or
thousands of acres.
The reasons why small and mid-scale farmers get turned down for bank loans are
legion. For example, their local bank branch may not have a loan officer who
understands the business of farming. They may have insufficient credit history or
collateral which is unacceptable to the lender. They may only have seasonal
cash flow, which, in the eyes of a lender, would make a loan too risky. The list
goes on and on.
There are other options beyond the local bank when it comes to financing. The
federal government, through the United States Department of Agriculture's Farm
Service Agency (USDA-FSA), has a number of programs that provide support to farmers
across the country. But small and mid-scale farmers often encounter difficulties
when applying for this type of support, especially when it comes to commodity
programs (i.e., those that provide financial support for farmers who produce
specific crops like wheat, feed grains, cotton, rice, etc). This type of funding
is typically directed to large farms, as detailed in a 2007 USDA article titled
"The Importance of Farm Program Payments to Farm Households." According
to the article, "large farms are more likely to receive farm program payments
and, as a group, they receive the bulk of payments simply because most payments are
paid per acre."
The USDA-FSA also provides loans to farmers through its direct lending and loan
guarantee programs. Both sets of programs are targeted toward farmers who have been
unsuccessful attaining financing thorough banks or other lenders. The main difference
between each is that loans distributed through the direct program are made and
serviced by FSA staff while guaranteed program loans are made by commercial lenders
but guaranteed against loss by the FSA. Like with the commodity programs, though,
problems exist for small and mid-scale farmers who apply for direct or guaranteed loans.
"These loan programs are specifically set up to assist farmers who are unable
to get financing elsewhere," says Suput. "But these loans can't serve all
the needs that exist, monies aren't always available, and it can take a long time
to get small amounts of money."
Financial support is also available at the state-level but these programs, as
Suput shares, vary from state to state and their resources are limited.
THE MIDDLE WOMAN
Farming runs deep in Dorothy Suput's
family. Both her parents grew up on farms, and each summer Suput would travel
from her home in Indiana to visit her grandmother's farm in Nebraska. Suput
didn't do much farming when she visited, choosing to ride combines, play at a
nearby pond, and "harass the cows" instead.
"I thought the farm was fascinating," says Suput, an urban and
environmental policy graduate alumna. "It was a typical plains farm, a
beef and corn operation. I really looked forward to going there, but I didn't
become really interested in agriculture until after college."
Suput graduated from Purdue University with a bachelor's degree in cellular
biology in 1986, and left for Switzerland soon after. She spent four years there,
working first as a researcher at the Friedrich Miescher Institute and later as a
regional marketing and sales representative for Boehringer-Mannheim (Switzerland)
Ag. As she traveled across Switzerland on behalf of Boehringer-Mannheim, Suput
became reacquainted with agricultural production after immersing herself in the local
culture during her free time.
"I acquired a different sensibility about what kind of agriculture was
good," says Suput, of her time in Switzerland. "I hiked a lot and the
trails often cut through private property, many of which were farms. I couldn't
help but notice the farms and their relative connection to their communities.
This led to conversations with farmers and people I met who lived in small towns.
We talked about biodynamic farming (which focuses on environmentally conscious
maintenance and preservation of farmland), organic agriculture, and other agricultural
practices. I also noticed that there was strong support for buying local, which was
something I never heard about growing up in Indiana. From these experiences, it
seemed to me that Switzerland had found a better way of doing agriculture."
By this time, Suput had decided to take her career in a different direction.
She had spent enough time in the lab to realize that a career as a research
scientist was not for her. Instead, based on her interest in policy and advocacy
issues, she wanted to become involved in the nonprofit world. This meant going back to school.
"I had a very strong science background before coming to Tufts," says Suput,
"Literally, 80 percent of the courses I took as an undergraduate were
science-related, whether it was calculus, physics, chemistry, or biology. So, it
didn't make sense for me to go back to a science-based program. I chose UEP
because it provided me with the chance to learn about the whole nonprofit sector
and get a better understanding of how agriculture worked in the United States."
Suput's master's thesis, titled "Community Sponsored Agriculture in
Massachusetts: Status, Benefits, and Barriers," focused on sustainable agriculture
and its benefits from an environmental, economic, health, and social perspective.
Advocates of sustainable agriculture believe food should be produced in an environmentally
responsible way and should have the best interests of consumers in mind. This agricultural
philosophy also stresses the importance of treating animals in humane ways and providing
fair wages to farmers. On the ground, so to speak, a sustainable approach could involve
avoiding antibiotic and growth hormone use on livestock, using pesticides and herbicides
only when necessary, rotating crops (which helps replenish soil nutrient supply), and
minimizing food transport (and thus fuel) by selling to locally based markets, restaurants,
and other businesses.
After earning her master's degree in 1992, Suput served as the northeast regional
organizer for the Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture and then as executive director
of the Massachusetts Recycling Coalition. After years of working for nonprofits, she
decided to start one of her own. In 2005, she founded The Carrot Project to support
small and mid-scale farmers seeking financing. Providing this support was a challenge
in the beginning, as there was little research on this topic as well as other related issues.
"It became clear to me that there was a lack of infrastructure to support small
and mid-scale farmers," says Suput, the nonprofit's sole employee. "We addressed
this by focusing on the financing gaps facing them."
Suput decided to run a pilot program with a single farmer in the Northeast. The goal
was to help this farmer get financing from a local lending or grant-making institution.
Suput would serve as, essentially, the middleman. But Suput didn't want just any farmer.
"We didn't put out a big advertisement, because we were only going to work with
one farmer," says Suput. "We were looking for someone who understood that it
might take five or eight months, instead of six weeks, to get a loan, someone who
understood that we were a nonprofit and this was a pilot."
Enter Lee Straw.
THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT
There were other ways to get the money. Lee Straw could have sold some of his heifers.
He had done it before. But this would have been a classic case of addition by
subtraction. True, he would have a new roof and a functioning barn. But he would
also have fewer cows and, thus, wouldn't be able to sell as much milk. Before Straw
had to make this difficult decision, he was contacted by Dorothy Suput.
"I reached out to John Harker at the Maine Department of Agriculture in 2006
and he suggested Lee Straw," says Suput. "I contacted Lee and he ended up
being one of four farmers who submitted an application."
The four applicants soon became two, with the final pairing submitting full
business plans to The Carrot Project.
During the pilot program outreach, Suput worked with Jonathan Jaffe and Lucy Miller.
Jaffe, a Carrot Project Advisory board member, is vice president and farm business
consultant/farm tax specialist for First Pioneer Farm Credit, ACA, and Miller is trustee
of the Lawson Valentine Foundation. The foundation, which focuses on environmental
justice, sustainable agriculture, and food systems, would later become the investor
behind Lee Straw.
Of the finalists, Lee Straw had the strongest business plan, and was chosen for
the pilot program after a conference call with Suput, Jaffe, and Miller.
"We talked about what type of an investment it would be, how secure it would
be, and what the downsides were," says Suput. "The foundation wanted to go
ahead with the loan, with the caveat that they would take a percent interest on the
property so they could protect their interests."
With an agreement in place, the Lawson Valentine Foundation put $30,000 into a
certificate of deposit at a local bank. The bank then provided Straw with a loan
and he was able to hire contractors to install a new roof and increase the number
of chickens he had by 600. The influx of chickens, which currently occupy the first
and third floors of the barn, were pivotal in the months that followed.
"We were able to double the amount of eggs we were producing at the time," says Straw.
"We had the demand, and the extra chickens paid for the roof. That's kind of the
long and short of it."
During the pilot program process, Suput was also working on another significant
project. This project was a survey of small farmers in New England and New York. The
intent of the survey was to explore the financial challenges facing these farmers and
thus chart the future course of The Carrot Project. Data from the survey was assembled
into a report published last summer titled "Are Northeast Small Farmers in a
"Over 700 farmers completed the survey," says Suput, who credits the
organization's four-member working group with guiding the project.
"We found that 25 percent of small farmers who applied for financing can't get
the money they need and that many small farmers, particularly start ups and
expanding businesses, could benefit from alternative financing services and
business technical assistance."
With the survey results in mind, Suput moved forward. The first step was enhancing
the organization's website.
"We added a financing resources page to the website," says Suput. "This page
helps farmers find agricultural lenders in their area and organizations which
provide technical assistance for planning and managing their farms. We used to
have a lot of one-on-one conversations with farmers, but now we refer them to
our website where they can find what they need."
According to Suput, the website will help beginning farmers in particular.
"There are different categories of farmers," she says. "There are farmers who
have been doing it for a long time or come from a farm family. These farmers are
pretty familiar with USDA or Farm Credit programs or at least know that their
family used to go to a certain Bank & Trust to get a loan. These farmers are not
necessarily the target audience for the financing resources portion of the site,
but may come to us if they are in a bind and need alternative financing, like
Lee Straw did. The information on lenders and technical assistance is more
targeted toward beginning farmers and people who don't come from traditional
Suput plans to add more financing and related resources to the site and, this
winter, The Carrot Project and Strolling of the Heifers, a nonprofit organization
in Vermont, will unveil a new micro-loan program. The program will provide loans
of $1,000 to $10,000 for small and mid-scale farmers in Vermont and Western
Massachusetts (Berkshire, Hampshire, Hampden, and Franklin Counties). Preference
will be given to farmers employing or moving toward sustainable and organic farming
methods and who are also active in local food networks.
"Chittenden Bank is going to administer the loans," says Suput. "The
Carrot Project will do all the due diligence on the applications, review business
plans, put together the loan committee, do site visits, and whatever else is
necessary such as connecting farmers with business planning assistance. Once
we've decided who will get the loans, we will contact Chittenden Bank and let
them know who will be receiving them and for what amount."
KEEPING IT LOCAL
The furthest that any of Lee Straw's farm products go after leaving his farm is
65 miles. This means that his milk, eggs, and lamb can be found in a variety of
local markets near his Maine home.
On the other hand, the average distance an American meal travels is 1,500 miles,
according to the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA).
This long-distance transport by land, sea, and air can have detrimental effects on
the environment. Take California, for example. In 2007, as part of a report titled
"Food Miles: How Far Your Food Travels Has Serious Consequences For Your Health
and The Climate," the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that in
2005 "almost 250,000 tons of global warming gases released were attributable
to imports of food products—the equivalent amount of pollution produced by
more than 40,000 vehicles on the road or nearly two power plants." The report
also goes on to say that, because of this food travel, "Three hundred tons of
sooty particulate matter were released into the airthe equivalent of more than
1.2 million cars or 53 power plants."
Beyond the environmental impact of this travel, food quality can also be
affected. The CUESA notes that "in order to transport food long distances,
much of it is picked while still unripe and then gassed to "ripen" it
after transport, or it is highly processed in factories using preservatives,
irradiation, and other means to keep it stable for transport and sale."
Based on their proximity to consumers, though, the food produced by small
and mid-scale farmers is not subject to many of these pitfalls. These farmers
also play pivotal roles in the economies of local communities.
"When people are supporting locally grown food, they are obviously supporting
a local business," says Jennifer Hashley, director of Tufts' Gerald J. and
Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy's New Entry Sustainable
Farming Project (NESFP). "This means that the dollars that go into a local
farm stay within the community. Farmers need to pay their employees and purchase
fuel, supplies, and materials, which are usually ordered and purchased from fellow
Ultimately, in a time when people are more health-conscious and environmentally
aware, there is something compelling about knowing where your food came from and
who produced it.
"I can defend what I produce in that it's a healthy choice for the consumer
and they can be comfortable that the environment is being protected to the best of
my ability," says Lee Straw.
Adds Lisa Richards, "I feel like I'm feeding my community by giving them
healthy eggs, meat, milk, yogurt, and organically grown vegetables. It's a good
Dorothy Suput and Lee Straw leave the chickens and walk down the steps leading
out of the barn. Outside, they talk for a few moments as a steady rain begins to
fall. Their conversation covers a multitude of topics, from farming to what they
have planned for the weekend, and then the photographer, who had been snapping
photos all along, poses a question.
"Can I buy some eggs?"
With this, Lee Straw heads toward the dark opening of the barn. A few minutes later,
he emerges carrying a few cartons of eggs. He passes them out, explaining that they are
complimentary and laid that morning. This would make the eggs, approximately, eight hours
old and some of the freshest a person could find.
Exchanges like these happen every day on farms from Maine to California and are
about more than eggs and other items produced on the farm. They are also about building
community, protecting the environment, and supporting businesses that may be small, but
whose impact can be felt on a global scale.
"I've always felt that we need a diversified farming sector," says Suput.
"Right now, infrastructure and support systems are weighted or geared towards
the largest farms. We need small farms. We need large farms. We need farms that
produce multiple products. We need farms that are focused on one thing. It has
to do with quality, quantity, how it is produced, and where it's coming from.
But to achieve this we have to support small and mid-scale farmers, which is
what The Carrot Project is trying to do."
The Carrot Project is located in Somerville, Massachusetts and is supported by
Farm Credit Northeast AgEnhancement, the Lawson Valentine Foundation, a component fund
of the Maine Community Foundation, NESARE Sustainable Community Grants Program, The
Sandy River Charitable Foundation, and Trillium Asset Management. More information can be
found at http://www.thecarrotproject.org/
or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Article by Robert Bochnak, G07, senior writer/communications
manager, Office of Graduate Studies
Photos by Melody Ko
This article originally appeared in the fall 2008 edition of
the magazine for Tufts Arts, Sciences, and Engineering graduate alumni.