Four years ago, Nelida Martinez's teenaged son got sick. The herbal remedies she'd learned from her grandmother in Oaxaca, Mexico, didn't help, so she took him to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with leukemia. Martinez, a 38-year-old farmworker with a shy smile and laugh lines from a life spent in the sun, had followed the crops for decades, picking grapes in Fresno and raspberries in Oregon, cutting strawberries in Oxnard, Calif. Convinced that her lifelong exposure to agricultural chemicals had played a role in her son's illness, she vowed never to work on a conventional farm again.
The mother of six dreamed of buying land and starting her own organic farm in Washington's fertile Skagit Valley, where her family had settled and her husband worked in a slaughterhouse. She knew about plants and could rig an irrigation system using nothing but hoses, duct tape, and a machete. But she lacked the money to buy a tractor or compete with the trophy homes and horse stables sprouting on the prime farmland outside Seattle. In rural areas near lucrative urban markets, a single acre can cost tens of thousands of dollars — and banks won't loan money to anyone without a track record. And Martinez, a Spanish speaker whose formal classroom education ended in second grade, had never written a business plan or even used a computer.
Still, after her son went into remission, she began selling vegetables and Oaxacan herbs from a community garden plot to neighbors at her farmworker housing complex. There she met Sarita Schaffer, the new regional director of Washington State University's Latino farming program, who was recruiting for new bilingual sustainable farming and business entrepreneurship classes. Graduates would have the opportunity in 2010 to rent plots at Viva Farms, a nonprofit farm incubator in the Skagit Valley. Martinez signed up on the spot.
Now in its second year, Viva Farms offers aspiring farmers elusive necessities, from affordable irrigated land to a shared tractor to a cavernous cooler that keeps lettuce from wilting in the sun. The incubator, which sprawls across 33 acres rented from the county airport, also buys crops from its growers for a farm stand and produce subscription service. It's a working farm, outdoor classroom, and entrepreneurial Petri dish rolled into one.
Farm incubators are one answer to what many see as an increasingly pressing problem in agriculture: nurturing the next generation of farmers. Across the West, the average age of farmers is pushing 60. Nationwide, the number of farmers 65 and over increased by 22 percent between 2002 and 2007, according to the most recent agricultural census, while those younger than 45 fell by 14 percent and those younger than 25 dropped by 30 percent.
The trouble isn't lack of interest; it's that the infrastructure, money and skills — even the necessary government aid — are too often just out of reach. In theory, places like Viva Farms can help would-be farmers bridge the gap.
On a cold day this May, Martinez and her daughter, Lizette Flores, were planting inside the new greenhouse at Viva, an expensive but essential piece of infrastructure in the cool Northwest. A relative made potting benches from scrap wood while a line of women poked holes in plastic flats of dirt using Popsicle sticks. Into each hole went a seed: kohlrabi, epazote, corn, basil, and snap peas. Over the course of the spring, the greenhouse sheltered thousands of seedlings until it was warm enough to plant them outside.
Access to such facilities has made operating the family's business, called Pure Nelida, "a hundred percent easier," said Flores, 22, who works as her mother's partner and translator. Still, the biggest question has yet to be answered: Can farm incubators prepare emerging ventures like this well enough to succeed once they're on their own?
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 growfood.org, 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."
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!