Washington-based Incubator Farm Program Grows Next Generation of Sustainable Farmers
November 17, 2011 | Melinda Clark
Enthusiastic, entrepreneurial youth wanting to farm. Young, skilled farmworkers who have been farming all of their lives. A population of aging farmers, whose average age is 57 years. Rich, fertile land that’s rapidly being sold for purposes other than farming. What do these all have in common? It’s part of Viva Farms’ mission to help them.
Viva Farms is a 33-acre incubator farm and farming program that helps beginning farmers get established, with the goal of eventually getting them onto their own farmland. It’s a joint venture of Washington State University (WSU) Extension and GrowFood.org, an international nonprofit dedicated to recruiting and training the next generation of sustainable farmers. Viva Farms is located in the Skagit Valley in Washington, a region renowned for having “some of the best soil on the planet,” says Sarita Schaffer, the director of Viva Farms.
Sarita and her husband Ethan started GrowFood, a nonprofit that encompasses GrowFood.org, the northwest chapter of Slow Money and Viva Farms, more than 10 years ago. At the time, both were starting to intern on farms and become interested in sustainable agriculture, and found that there weren’t many online resources for finding farm internships or apprenticeships. They started Growfood.org, one of the first searchable databases for sustainable agriculture internships.
It was through working on GrowFood.org, and their own experience with farm internships, that the Schaffers realized how few resources were available to help them reach the next step – acquiring and farming land of one’s own.
“After 10 years of that, it became clear that GrowFood was working great for getting people internships, but there was a huge gap between that and people being able to start their own farms,” says Schaffer. “People would spend five or six years working on farms, but typically they’d be working in exchange for room and board or a small stipend…They’d go to start their farm and have no capital.”
The turning point for Sarita came after working with a microfinance program in Paraguay. When she returned to the U.S., she was recruited by WSU to help develop programs for Latino farmers.
“I found myself at this crossroads, looking at what the farmworkers needed to transition from farmworkers to farm owners,” she said. She realized that many of the challenges migrant workers face are the same ones young farmers face when trying to enter a career in farming: lack of resources – namely, land, infrastructure, equipment, capital and markets, and technical assistance in all of those areas. Viva Farms was created to try to bridge that gap.
There are five basic phases in the Viva Farms program. Phase one, taught in partnership with WSU, is a bilingual 12-week intensive training course entitled “Sustainable Small Farming and Ranching.” It’s predominantly classroom learning, plus farm field trips and guest lectures by local farmers.
Phase two is the farm business planning course, also 12 weeks. In it, students work on each component of their business plan. They sit down one-on-one with Viva staff and hone in on their business and marketing plan. If Viva feels that the student is serious, he or she is eligible to lease a plot of land at the farm.
Phases three and four are the execution of the business and marketing plan. Course graduates can sublease plots of Viva’s incubator farm (leased to Viva by the Port of Skagit) and launch and grow their farm business. There, the farmers-in-training have access to tractors and other equipment, a greenhouse, processing and packing areas, and commercial cold storage. They begin to execute their marketing plan, both through Viva Farms as well as on their own. More experienced farmers also have the option of entering the program at the marketing level, skipping the earlier training courses.
About 16 acres of the farm are currently under production. Farmers can sell their produce as part of Viva’s 90-member CSA or sell to Viva’s full-service produce market, which is located on a busy intersection of Highway 20. Viva also does wholesale to local restaurants and hospitals; though they don’t have solid figures yet, Schaffer estimates that they do about $100,000 in sales between these three outlets.
The final phase of Viva is spinoff – farmers moving out of the incubator and into a more permanent situation. Since Viva Farms is just two years into the program, none of their farmers have reached the final phase yet.
“At this point it’s more outreach,” says Schaffer. “No one in Viva Farms is ready to leave right now. At this point it’s reaching out to everyone in the farming community and making sure they’re aware of Viva Farms.” Schaffer said that Viva has already been approached by land owners about having ‘graduates’ from the program come in and manage or start a farm on their land.
Are You Viva Material?
Viva’s trainees can be divided into three broad categories: they’re about a third young and beginning farmers, a third “less young” farmers, many going into farming as a second career, and a third Latino farmworkers, many of whom are under 35 and already have 20-plus years of farming experience. The average enrollment for the courses is about 30 to 35 people.
In general, Viva’s target beneficiary is the more seasoned farmer, who is already committed to farming.
“We’re looking for someone who has experience with production, who has interned or worked on a farm and is looking to step into more of a management position,” explains Schaffer. “The program is not designed for the kind of handholding of an internship.” She adds that Viva does offer an internship program for newbie farmers, so beginners can intern at Viva and then step into leasing their own parcel.
It’s this clear transition from interning to leasing and owning that distinguishes Viva from other programs; between it and GrowFood.org, a person can progress all the way from a little bit of interest in farming or a curiosity about how food is grown to ownership of one’s own farm.
Schaffer sums up the transition: “People farming alongside one another, collaborating together, learning together, going on to become farm owners together.”
Although Viva Farms is still in its beginning stages, it has big plans for the future. One goal is to partner with investors to launch a microloan for farmers who are still at Viva, to help with moving out.
Schaffer says that the length of time a farmer is at Viva will vary greatly depending on the farmer’s own experience and other individual factors, but she estimates that farmers will spend about seven years at the incubator. What she predicts – and what is starting to happen already – is that farmers will gradually transition to their own land, rather than breaking away all at once. “We’ve started to see expansion outside of the incubator,” says Schaffer. “Renting land offsite but still using the equipment and services…What I imagine is someone maintaining their presence at Viva, but starting to produce off site. And using their spare time and profits to build up their own facilities, cold storage.”
Schaffer says that she knows it will be a challenge for Viva to keep up with the pace of demand, and that at some point they’ll outgrow their land base. “Every time we expand our land base we have to make massive investments in our infrastructure, storage, processing facilities. It’s not a question of creating a means of production, it’s creating a whole marketing and distribution program.”
She says that this year the big push will be to get into major markets and expand their CSA base, and that in the future they’ll focus on adding processed foods and value-added products, as well as livestock and dairy.
For anyone who’s interested, Viva Farms is actively seeking applications!