Farm incubators help would-be farmers succeed on their own

  • Nelida Martinez wraps a rubber band around cilantro she's harvested. Martinez, along with her daughter, Lizette Flores, and other family members, is part of the Viva Farms co-op in Skagit Valley.

    Doug Ramsay
  • Viva Farms Director Sarita Schaffer is also the regional director of Washington State University's Latino farming program. She and others from WSU applied for grants and convinced socially motivated investors to fund Viva Farms.

    Doug Ramsay
  • On a cool and rainy day in late September, produce stand manager Lizette Flores and her mother Nelida Martinez prep an incoming shipment of squash and pumpkins.

    Doug Ramsay
  • A sign painted on the back of Viva Farms’ office and refrigeration building reflects the blue sky just after sunset.

    Doug Ramsay
  • Viva Farms farmer Valerie Rose, of Mount Vernon, Washington, tosses weeds aside as she clears an area where she’ll plant her winter crop later in the week. Rose grew up on a farm in northeast Illinois, but went on to work in public radio and research administration. After moving here from Seattle, though, she became a master gardener and took farming classes through the Extension Service before renting a half acre at Viva Farms.

    Doug Ramsay

Four years ago, Nelida Martinez's teenaged son got sick. The herbal remedies she'd learned from her grandmother in Oaxaca, Mexico, didn't help, so she took him to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with leukemia. Martinez, a 38-year-old farmworker with a shy smile and laugh lines from a life spent in the sun, had followed the crops for decades, picking grapes in Fresno and raspberries in Oregon, cutting strawberries in Oxnard, Calif. Convinced that her lifelong exposure to agricultural chemicals had played a role in her son's illness, she vowed never to work on a conventional farm again.

The mother of six dreamed of buying land and starting her own organic farm in Washington's fertile Skagit Valley, where her family had settled and her husband worked in a slaughterhouse. She knew about plants and could rig an irrigation system using nothing but hoses, duct tape and a machete. But she lacked the money to buy a tractor or compete with the trophy homes and horse stables sprouting on the prime farmland outside Seattle. In rural areas near lucrative urban markets, a single acre can cost tens of thousands of dollars -- and banks won't loan money to anyone without a track record. And Martinez, a Spanish speaker whose formal classroom education ended in second grade, had never written a business plan or even used a computer.

Still, after her son went into remission, she began selling vegetables and Oaxacan herbs from a community garden plot to neighbors at her farmworker housing complex. There, she met Sarita Schaffer, the new regional director of Washington State University's Latino farming program, who was recruiting for new bilingual sustainable farming and business entrepreneurship classes. Graduates would have the opportunity in 2010 to rent plots at Viva Farms, a nonprofit farm incubator in the Skagit Valley. Martinez signed up on the spot.

Now in its second year, Viva Farms offers aspiring farmers elusive necessities, from affordable irrigated land to a shared tractor to a cavernous cooler that keeps lettuce from wilting in the sun. The incubator, which sprawls across 33 acres rented from the county airport, also buys crops from its growers for a farm stand and produce subscription service. It's a working farm, outdoor classroom and entrepreneurial Petri dish rolled into one.

Farm incubators are one answer to what many see as an increasingly pressing problem in agriculture: nurturing the next generation of farmers. Across the West, the average age of farmers is pushing 60. Nationwide, the number of farmers 65 and over increased by 22 percent between 2002 and 2007, according to the most recent agricultural census, while those younger than 45 fell by 14 percent and those younger than 25 dropped by 30 percent.

The trouble isn't lack of interest; it's that the infrastructure, money and skills -- even the necessary government aid -- are too often just out of the reach. In theory, places like Viva Farms can help would-be farmers bridge the gap.

On a cold day this May, Martinez and her daughter, Lizette Flores, were planting inside the new greenhouse at Viva, an expensive but essential piece of infrastructure in the cool Northwest. A relative made potting benches from scrap wood while a line of women poked holes in plastic flats of dirt using Popsicle sticks. Into each hole went a seed: kohlrabi, epazote, corn, basil and snap peas. Over the course of the spring, the greenhouse sheltered thousands of seedlings until it was warm enough to plant them outside.

Access to such facilities has made operating the family's business, called Pure Nelida, "a hundred percent easier," said Flores, 22, who works as her mother's partner and translator. Still, the biggest question has yet to be answered: Can farm incubators prepare emerging ventures like this well enough to succeed once they're on their own?

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