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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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.

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