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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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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