What is a farm business incubator?

Viva Farms
Skagit Valley, Washington State
Visited on the cloudy, rainless morning of Friday, November 6th, 2015

Part of me wishes I could wear rubber boots to work every day. Or at least half of the time, like Beth at Viva Farms. Beth started farming at this farm business incubator three seasons ago and has since taken on the role of Development and Communications Manager for the organization.

Viva Farms, which sits not ten miles from Puget Sound in the Skagit Valley of Washington State, was founded in 2009 as a response to the challenges new farmers face while starting their own farm businesses. In addition to leasing out quarter-acre to acre parcels, renting shared equipment and providing access to local markets, Viva Farms also offers farmers bilingual (Spanish and English) training on organic farming methods, planning for small businesses and marketing.

Included in their rent, each farmer receives room in the cold storage and spaces to grow seed starts in the greenhouse (which is now full of green and yellow squash). Access to tractors and water is also provided.

Included in their rent, each farmer receives room in the cold storage and spaces to grow seed starts in the greenhouse (which is now full of green and yellow squash). Access to tractors and water is also provided.

One way farmers can access the local market is by selling their produce at wholesale prices to Viva Farms directly. The produce is then sold at the organization’s vegetable stand on the south end of the lot or delivered to cooperative grocery stores or restaurants. Farmers are also encouraged, apparently, to find their own sales avenues, be it farmers’ markets or to grocery stores.

Beth’s grandfather was a dairy farmer so she is well accustomed to working outdoors. “But, thankfully, there aren’t any animals on this farm!” she joked as we trudged down the tire-treaded, wood-chipped road separating the 33 acres in half. The recent heavy rains have brought this road to a mushy state that, to Beth’s credit, does resemble cow manure. As we walked, Beth pointed out the parcels on our left and right, each of which is designated by a yellow-painted sign.

On her plot, Beth is growing perennial artichokes, some of which she sells to another farmer for their winter CSA boxes.

On her plot, Beth is growing perennial artichokes, some of which she sells to another farmer for their winter CSA boxes.

A yellow sign marks the start of this farmer's parcel.

A yellow sign marks the start of this farmer’s parcel.

A good number of the participants here used to be farm workers who then joined Viva Farms to become farm owners. Many have years of practical experience in agriculture but may lack the business skills to get a farm up and running. Others are young couples who work full-time jobs off the farm.

It's the start of winter, so Beth removes her drip-line hose from the source.

It’s the start of winter, so Beth removes her drip-line hose from the source.

I asked if those who have graduated from the program have been successful in starting their own businesses. “Yes!” was the answer I got from Rob, Viva Farm’s Operations and Incubator Director. “There are quite a few stories of success that have arisen from Viva Farms,” he explained. Several Viva Farms participants have moved on to become farm managers or work in farm support organizations. “Others have purchased or are leasing land off-site to grow their own businesses while they transition off of Viva,” Rob continued. In the six seasons this incubator program has existed, several participants have made the full transition and are now operating their own farms completely independently of Viva Farms.

However, while Viva Farms provides a variety of services to help farmers become independent and skilled business owners, there still remain the external barriers to farm ownership. Many of these barriers, Rob specifies, “are structural and based in adverse policies and market dynamics that favor large growers.”

One perhaps more manageable challenge Viva Farms is tackling at this time is that there currently is no maximum number of years a farmer can remain on the incubator farm. Seeing as how a great part of Viva Farm’s funding is based on the criteria that the organization help farmers become independent business owners, staff is working now to increase the number of those success stories. One solution could be rewriting the contracts to establish a maximum number of years farmers can lease from Viva Farms. Yearly rent increases could also be implemented to encourage farmers to search for opportunities to take their knowledge and experience to the next level.

The organization is also adjusting their entry requirements into the program, after realizing that the previous organic agriculture and business management training, offered in collaboration with WSU’s Cultivating Success course series was not adequately preparing the farmers for their “incubation” period. Starting next season, Viva Farms will provide trainees classroom-based education while providing practical activities on a training plot. This combination of hands-on and theoretical material will hopefully provide a more effective learning environment.

This overflowing plot is of one successful and hard-working farmer who has been with Viva Farms since the beginning.

This overflowing plot is of one successful and hard-working farmer who has been with Viva Farms since the beginning.

Beth points out another farmer's berry plot.

Beth points out another farmer’s berry plot.

Just as I was leaving, Rob returned from a delivery and his calico-colored dog Charlie playfully leapt at me. Their return broke the oddly quiet ambiance of my tour. Walking around the parcels while the farmers were out felt a bit like snooping into their private spaces. While the people who had spent the summer improving their farming and business skills were elsewhere the morning I visited, their efforts were visible. Seeing their kale plants growing tall and their flowers gone to seed, I looked forward to seeing this place in full bloom and with voices filling the air.


Visit the Farm and Project Profiles page for more people and programs dedicated to keeping our food systems sustainable, healthy and just.


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