When John Benedict drove from Philadelphia to rural southern Arizona five years ago in a van he bought for $1,000 with money saved from eBay sales, he had no intention of becoming a farmer.
He just knew he wanted to leave city life, and an unfulfilling career in finance, behind.
“I just knew I wanted freedom,” Benedict, 33, said. “I just wanted land and space.”
With the help of the thriving, local agricultural community in Cochise County, Benedict has become the farmer he never thought he’d be, cultivating organic beets, carrots, strawberries, onions, broccoli, cabbage, salad greens, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and more.
Community Investment Corporation, a non-profit financial-empowerment organization, is part of Local First Arizona’s AZNavigator, a statewide small-business and entrepreneurship-assistance center. The 10 organizations that comprise AZNavigator provide no-cost assistance to startups and local business owners in Arizona.
“When I moved out here, I was living in a van. It was cold and miserable,” Benedict said, noting he is now organizing a co-op of other small-scale growers. “Without Community Investment Corporation’s funding, this would not even have been remotely possible.”
Simple Conversations Lead To Life-Changing Results
The farming and the funding came together in the most happenstance of ways, beginning with simple conversations.
On a visit to a local food bank, a local farmer invited Benedict to earn money by helping seed his land. Benedict accepted, and it changed the trajectory of his life.
“I never stopped farming, from that moment on,” he said. “It felt like this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.”
With that anchor in place, Benedict learned while working, made the most of whatever funds came his way — investing in solar panels, water tanks and pumps — and continued creating connections within his rural community.
‘The World Should Be More Economically Available To Everybody’
Another of Benedict’s connections at the food bank quite literally paid off.
A woman there directed him to Community Investment Corporation, where he learned about a loan fund for entrepreneurs of color that could help him expand his farm.
As a Black farmer with no capital to use as collateral, Benedict embodied the reason the loan fund was created.
Brandi Szymanski, the corporations’s rural lending manager, said the fund was created in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement to provide financial opportunities to all kinds of entrepreneurs from underserved communities.
“The world should be more economically available to everybody,” Szymaski said.
Creative Approaches To Community Funding
To receive a zero-interest loan up to $10,000 from Community Investment Corporation, applicants are asked to shoot a video of the work they’re doing and what they hope to accomplish with financial support.
Benedict appreciated the creative approach to the funding application because it meant he wouldn’t be dismissed for not coming to the table with years of financial records.
“I did my application in my field,” he said. “I literally showed them my field of garlic and onions. It felt amazing showing them that I already had the seeds going.”
Paying it forward to the next small business
With the funding in place, Benedict has started a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiative to serve a local rehab facility, plans to open a retail space and is partnering with local schools. All of the work is allowing him to realize his goal of providing healthy foods to people who need it most.
Plus Benedict gets to literally pay his loan forward.
“I love knowing that every month when I make my payment that money is going from me to the next farmer and small business owner,” Benedict said. “And if we really talk about equality, there are different ways to level the playing field. One of them is childhood and prenatal nutrition. So, if we can get healthy and organic food to people who can’t afford it, that’s the mission.”
Szymaski, who recently visited Benedict’s farm, said she was impressed with the progress he has made. His success, she said, is exactly why she loves doing the work she does.
“He’s thriving,” she said, recalling her visit to Benedict’s farm. “This is really social work. It’s lending, but we’re not a bank.”
Buy produce from Desert Sky Organic’s new co-op at 9110 N. Highway 191, McNeal, AZ, call (520) 200-0549 or visit www.thelocalcoopaz.com.
Learn more about Community Investment Corporation’s low-interest lending for rural and underserved communities here.
Learn more about AZNavigator’s free assistance for Arizona small businesses here.
Read the original article on Local First Arizona.