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

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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, 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 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."

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