Chef John Besh backs loan program to help farms
PROGRESS, Miss.- It looks like the perfect, bucolic life - neat barns and a rustic store, cows grazing peacefully under the trees beside a pond, a sprawling house just across the road, and the third and fourth generation of dairy farmers working together.
But the life Kenny and Jamie Mauthe planned was almost wiped out by Hurricane Katrina. Now they are slowly rebuilding their business in Pike County, about 100 miles north of New Orleans, with the help of a $20,000 loan set up by chef John Besh. The Mississippi native and host of the public television show "Chef John Besh's New Orleans" is working through his namesake foundation to provide capital for small farms by way of low-interest loans.
The Mauthes have had a long recovery since the 2005 storm: They once owned 350 acres but had to sell all but 50. They had to sell most of their 120 cows, too - now they have just 14.
"The only damage we had here was to the roof of the barn. But it wiped out our market," Kenny Mauthe said. "We mostly sold to New Orleans, and that was gone."
The family is once again selling pasteurized, but not homogenized milk, in old-fashioned glass bottles, and "Creole cream cheese," a yogurt-like product that was once beloved by south Louisiana customers, but had all but disappeared about 20 years ago because of the detailed process needed to make it.
They are slowly rebuilding their business, but needed more
capital to take it further - something a small farming operation is unlikely to find from traditional sources.
That's where Besh came in.
"I know how difficult capital is to come by these days," Besh said. "We've been successful with the restaurants, but finding the money I need can be difficult at times. This is a way to make an impactful change and generate more small farmers."
Besh's foundation has set up a program that guarantees low-interest loans - ranging from $1,000 to $20,000. It is not limited to Katrina victims.
"There has been a huge resurgence in small and urban farming," Besh said. "It's where we get so much of our wonderful product today. But much of it is struggling. The issue a lot of times for these folks has been that they have not been able to find traditional funding."
Mauthes' Progress Dairy Farm, which is now selling its products in farmers markets, some retail stores and to restaurants - Besh uses them - was the first recipient of a Besh loan, receiving the maximum $20,000. Besh said others are in the application process.
"We want to earn enough money to support ourselves and for our daughters to support themselves," Jamie Mauthe said. "And I would like to get a new cheese maker so we can expand our product."
Kenny Mauthe and one of his daughters now work outside jobs as well as on the farm.
The loans are available to farmers within a 200-mile radius of New Orleans - including portions of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
Applications are reviewed by the Hope Credit Union, which evaluates them and sets up a repayment plan, Besh said. The term of the loans can vary. As a guarantee for the loan, the foundation puts cash into a protected account tied to the specific loan.
The program also matches those getting loans with students in the Tulane University MBA program to help them with business plans.
The Tulane program, called Net Impact, is an international organization of volunteers from MBA programs who volunteer time for social programs.
"We consult them on seeing objectives, analyzing goals, and setting up a business plan," said Alejandra Guzman, who is in charge of the Net Impact program at Tulane. "I find that most of the farmers have a lot of common sense and business acumen. They are glad to formalize plans and get them in writing, though."
Besh has not set a limit on the number of loans.
"The more we lend the better it is for these guys and gals out working to produce all the wonderful products that make my life wonderful," Besh said. "We hope to do as many as possible."