Business Incubator Supports Green and Seasoned Farmers in the Skagit

From foodtank.com, by Anna Guth
Business Incubator Supports Green and Seasoned Farmers in the Skagit

Viva Farms is a business incubator that provides farmers with access to the three most common impediments to their success—land, education, and capital. The six-year-old nonprofit organization leases 33 acres in Washington State’s Skagit Valley and currently supports 14 separate farm businesses.

According to Viva Farms, the Skagit Valley is rated among the top in the world for agricultural use. The American Farmland Trust designated the region the fifth most threatened agricultural region in the nation. But most of the farmland is owned by older farmers, who are 58 years old, rather than beginning farmers.

Viva Farms strives to minimize prohibitive startup costs not only for new farmers to learn how to farm but also for experienced farmworkers to establish their own businesses.

“We are trying to grow the next generation of farmers in the Skagit Valley,” says operations and incubator director Rob Smith. “There is a lot of skill here already, but huge gaps in resources.”

To be accepted into the incubator program, prospective farmers must complete a course series offered by Skagit Valley College’s Sustainable Agriculture program, submit a business plan, and cover minimal operating costs—these include the land lease, irrigation supplies, educational program fees, and field equipment rental. (Depending on methods and the size of the plot of land, these costs could be as low as US$500/season.) All classes and services are available in both Spanish and English.

During the season, the farmers at Viva Farms sell their produce to the organization itself, which runs a seasonal roadside farm stand and also sells to local cooperatives and other wholesale markets. While some farmers arrive with relationships to other markets already established, many take full advantage of Viva Farms’ capacity to purchase all the quality produce that they grow. While the revenue made off of produce assists the Viva Farms organization, their primary source of support is from outside funders and grant money from governmental organizations like the United States Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher fund.

Among the farmers is Santiago Lozano, who owns and operates Lozano Farms and specializes in strawberries and raspberries. Nelida Martinez and Lizette Flores have Pure Nelida Farm and are known for their 72 varieties of veggies and Oaxacan herbs as well as fresh tortillas and Oaxacan bread. For Boldly Grown Farm, Jacob Slosberg and Amy Frye focus on root vegetables, winter squashes, and flowers. David Kim grows Korean medicinal roots, sesame leaves, and mixed vegetables for Yong Dun Farm.

“Especially once the season gets going, addressing the needs of people with a huge range of experiences can be challenging,” says Smith, who is in charge of bilingual curriculum development and general operations. “Some have a limited level of literacy, which makes communication and marketing difficult…or, people have very little experience with the production side of things.” 

To address the problems in the field, Viva Farms has introduced a new hands-on training course. This newly required aspect of the program is located at the Viva Farms site and offered in conjunction with the Skagit Valley College’s Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE) practicum series for spring, fall, and summer quarters. 

Viva Farms, while still a young organization, has already helped several successful farmers to relocate to new land and to continue to grow their operations.

According to Amy Frye from Boldly Grown Farm, a first season participant at Viva Farms, “Viva Farms provides so many resources but when we think about going out on our own in the future, it’s very important for us to focus on our brand independently of Viva.” 

Frye and her husband, who most recently managed the farm at the University of British Columbia, intend to buy land of their own within the next five years. As opposed to leasing land this season, Frye was drawn to Viva Farms because she felt the organization demonstrated a serious investment in what she called “human sustainability” and offered a uniquely supportive community.

Very few farmers who have plots at Viva Farms work in the field full-time. Most have day jobs and commute to the farm site to work when they can—before 9 a.m. to start watering, at lunchtime for a quick pass on the tractor, in the dead of the night to do a harvest. Everyone is working to learn, to understand how to farm sustainably, and to figure it out as a way to make money.

In the Skagit Valley, where the majority of the agricultural work is done by undocumented, grossly underpaid workers, Viva Farms has positioned itself not only as support for green farmers like Amy Frye, but also as an avenue out of poverty for those already trained in the field. Viva Farms’ work as business incubator is to make farming a viable occupation for a wide demographic of people.

Fry says that all together they create a great learning environment. She says, “Yes, food brings people together at the dinner table but, out there in the field, that’s what happening also.”