Farm incubators help would-be farmers succeed on their own

by Jennifer Langston

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?

To an increasing number of people, the idea of sowing rainbow chard or biting into a crisp cucumber from your own field sounds like more fun than pounding nails or pecking away at a computer in a cubicle. And Westerners are flirting with small-scale and organic farming as never before. More than 50 colleges and universities around the region now offer classes in sustainable farming and ranching, a tenfold increase since 1988. There are more than twice as many certified organic farms and pastures as there were a decade ago. Those farms teem with interns learning how to weed, build root cellars, and push pluot samples -- part plum, part apricot -- at local farmers markets.

A decade ago, Schaffer and her future husband, Ethan, were 19-year-olds intrigued by farming and hungry for experience. They interned on a farm on Washington's Orcas Island, growing food by day and living in a solar-powered treehouse, where they spent their off hours creating a website to help aspiring farmers find mentors. The site, now called growfood.org, has since connected thousands of people with internships or apprenticeships on working farms. Yet the couple heard time and again that once training programs ended, those aspiring farmers still felt unequipped to turn a profit on their own.

Farming is not an easy business. The average income from a "beginning" farm in 2009 was a negative $8,283, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And federal government grants for beginning farmers generally require three years of experience before someone is eligible to apply.

Siri Erickson-Brown, who started farming five years ago and now owns Local Roots Farm on the outskirts of Seattle with her husband, just went through that loan application process to buy a Snoqualmie Valley farm after their partnership with another landowner dissolved. Despite their management skills and legal expertise, they found the bureaucratic maze overwhelming. "I think a lot of people confronted with the paperwork we had to fill out would be like, 'I have no idea. I can't do this.' If someone with a law degree and someone with a public management degree were so challenged in trying to make this work, imagine the average person, let alone someone who doesn't speak English as their first language," Erickson-Brown said.

The USDA is trying to improve its programs to meet its goal of helping 100,000 new farmers and ranchers launch viable businesses. The last federal farm bill included grants to help universities, nonprofits and community organizations develop farmer-training programs. It also offered new farmers a leg up in competitive federal conservation and grant programs, created financial incentives for landowners to lease them land, and established more favorable loan terms for them.

Still, the agency isn't as effective as it needs to be in "helping these farmers piece programs together and use them as whole cloth," said Traci Bruckner, a policy expert at the Center for Rural Affairs in Wayne, Neb., and the chair of the USDA's Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers. Incubators -- pioneered in California by the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), which works primarily with Latino farmworkers, and Intervale in Vermont, which works mostly with first-generation farmers -- can fill that role, Bruckner said. Still, they don't necessarily make sense for rural farming and ranching enterprises that need hundreds or thousands of acres to turn a profit. "In our part of the country, it's a different scale of agriculture," she said. "I think it's helpful for those types of farms that can tap into those high-value markets in urban areas, selling fresh food."

With that in mind, in 2009, Schaffer, her husband, and others from WSU applied for grants and convinced socially motivated investors to fund Viva Farms, which would be run by growfood.org in collaboration with the university. It would cater to both experienced farmworkers and newly minted interns from organic and small-scale farms. "The magic twist, I thought, was bringing the two groups of farmers together," said Schaffer, who now directs the Skagit Valley incubator.

The two populations tend to have opposite skills, and much to teach each other. The Latino farmworkers, for instance, can weed a row in five minutes and know tricks for growing amazing strawberries, but may not know how to operate bookkeeping spreadsheets. The Anglo farmers can sell produce on Facebook using an iPhone, but may not know how to grow it. The two groups also tend to have different tolerances for risk, with the Latino farmers operating with an immigrant's make-it-or-break-it attitude and the Anglos proceeding more cautiously.

Aspiring farmers typically sign up for the university's intensive course on sustainable farming and ranching. Those who haven't been scared off continue with an agricultural entrepreneurship class, where they learn how to research markets, structure their business, practice an elevator speech, keep records and invoices, understand liability insurance, develop a brand and write a business plan.

Graduates, who this year included farmworkers, a physical therapist, a carpenter whose work had evaporated in the recession, and urban farmers whose ambitions outgrew their backyards, are offered the chance to rent ground at the incubator. "People are starting to realize there has to be a bridge between the internship and full farm ownership," concludes Schaffer. "You need a place where people can learn while operating under real market pressures."

It's a model that others in the region -- driven by concerns about disappearing farmland, worries about food security or desires to help disadvantaged populations -- are trying to replicate. In a suburb south of Seattle, the United People's Farm gives Somali-Bantu immigrants the opportunity to learn how to apply their farming skills in the American marketplace. Community groups in Bellingham, Wash., spent years trying to buy land for an incubator and now plan to collaborate with an existing farm.

Portland-area officials, concerned about the lack of training programs for production-scale growing even in the midst of their foodie mecca, launched a pilot program this year that offers new farmers intensive training and short-term apprenticeships on county or university land. "There are an awful lot of people who call themselves farmers and they've sold a few things here and there, and it's a fun culture and it's a hobby culture," said Dan Bravin, Multnomah County's community food program coordinator. "But we're trying to go way beyond that and make a really serious effort to fill that next generation."

Until recently, Flores wasn't interested in that. She spent her childhood waking to salsa whirring in a blender at 4 a.m., a few hours before her mom was due in the fields. Martinez had to pack meals that could keep outside through 12-hour days. Flores remembers going to the blueberry fields before she was old enough for school. When she and her brother got tired, they'd put down their buckets and look for bugs under a shady tree. Her parents never had that option.

"It was the last thing I wanted to do after seeing my parents so tired," said Flores. She had been training to become a receptionist, but didn't like being tethered to a phone. So when her mom started farming on her own, Flores reluctantly agreed to help. "At first I was like, 'I don't want to go. Do I have to go?' But little by little I saw how the plants started to grow and how peaceful it was and not having someone tell you what to do. I really started liking it."

In her first year selling peppers, tomatoes, squash and herbs from her garden plot, Martinez grossed about $2,000. She wanted to expand the business, sell tortillas at farmers markets and find more acreage. But as a Spanish speaker who had traditionally grown hot-weather Mexican crops, she wasn't sure how to grow broccoli or negotiate rent with white farmers. She needed seed money to get health permits for her tortilla stand.

Schaffer initially helped Martinez find and rent a half-acre of land. After Martinez took the farming and business classes, Pure Nelida was one of six businesses to rent land at Viva Farms in its first season last year. This year, she and Flores expanded, farming 3.5 acres between the two sites and hoping to grow their profits to $10,000 through Viva's new distribution channels.

The incubator rents land for $400 an acre, higher than in some spots in the county, but it includes costly plowing and preparation. Water is $100 per acre. Overhead is low, but not so low that it makes it harder for farmers to adjust to costs in the real world;  the goal is to enable participants to take off on their own within seven years. "We want to create an arrangement that's getting people on their feet but not creating insane expectations of having all their marketing and distribution done at zero cost, which is not a reality. We're always trying to find a middle path," said Schaffer.

Other incubators have found that balance, but at a scale that seems painfully small compared to the need. ALBA, the most established farm incubator working with Latino farmworkers, graduated 44 aspiring farmers over the last two years who went on to create 25 new start-up farms. About 80 percent of the farmers who leave the incubator are still operating after five years. "The numbers aren't huge, but it is a track record," said Hugh Joseph, project developer at Tufts University's New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, which helps immigrants and refugees break into organic farming. When it comes to growing 100,000 new farmers, "it's probably not going to make a huge dent, but it's significant for these particular populations."

Last year, Schaffer helped the first Viva farmers sell to wholesale markets, the local hospital and a food bank that's willing to take dented cucumbers. But cultural barriers still hampered some of the Latino farmers. With four new growers joining the incubator this summer, Viva began buying crops directly from them for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, which collects families' money up front and allows growers to pool and deliver produce to them throughout the growing season. The Viva farmers take turns getting up at 4 a.m. on Thursdays to pack and deliver boxes of beets, berries, fennel, fava beans, lettuce, garlic and kale, so they can understand how much work it is before taking people's money and promising them vegetables.

The farm also built a produce stand this year at a busy intersection on the southern end of the property. It gives the incubator farmers a guaranteed outlet for their crops and will help Viva Farms itself transition from an operation funded primarily by grants and donations to one with a more self-sufficient revenue stream.

It also offered Flores an unexpected opportunity.

On a sunny August afternoon, Flores mans the register at the newly opened Viva Farms Fresh Market. The outdoor produce stand, which can take credit cards with an iPod, has cheery yellow umbrellas and marble countertops salvaged by Viva's carpenter-turned-farmer. It offers a full complement of fruits and vegetables along with filtered water so moms can wash their kids' berries on the spot.

This year the stand has been a blessing, allowing Flores and Martinez to sell enough lettuce, radishes, kale, cilantro, carrots, broccoli, beets and other crops that they've been able to stop going to small, barely profitable farmers markets.

Flores also has been offered a job selling produce and talking with customers on behalf of the growers. It's lucky timing: Her two brothers have started helping their mom on the production side, freeing her to learn more about the retail end of the business. She's already learning tricks that will help increase Pure Nelida's sales at the larger markets, such as leaving space between berry cartons to make them look like people have been snapping them up.

The extra income comes in handy at the end of a tough growing season. One meteorologist calculated that by mid-July, the region had experienced only 78 minutes of weather warm enough to be construed as summer. Mold killed most of Pure Nelida's tomatoes. Instead of increasing their profits this year, Flores figures they'll be glad to break even.

It's not what they expected. But neither is it a failure, and it beats taking orders at Jack in the Box, where Flores worked before finding her niche at Viva Farms. The stand is already the kind of place where people like to linger, complaining about the quality of California strawberries or opining on the proper age for kids to get paid for farmwork. "You get to hear all these personal things," said Flores. "I think I interact with people more than I used to. Talking about my vegetables, I just feel more comfortable."

This is both the strength and weakness of incubators: They invest in individuals and businesses one at a time. They meet people where they are, take all their peculiar circumstances into account and help them move forward. It's slow and labor-intensive, but there's no real alternative: You can't learn to farm online or in night classes, and it takes a lot longer than one growing season to turn a profit from a new business, if it happens at all.

Flores and Martinez are already planning adjustments for next year. They're harvesting more seeds from their own plants, and they plan to rent less land and farm it more intensively, having realized that three acres was too much. And while they will continue to lean on Viva Farms for infrastructure and marketing help, they may grow more at their off-site acreage, which tends to be a little drier.

And that may be the clearest sign of success: In this strange business, progress is ultimately measured by how well the incubator's farmers can get by without it.

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