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.


Striving For a Manageable Balance: Messy Gardens and Long Hours on the Homestead

June’s Homestead Farm
Skagit Valley, Washington
Visited mid-day on Saturday October 17th, 2015

June and I drank green tea as we looked out the living room window at the Skagit Valley flats. She, her husband and their youngest daughter moved to this farm of 18 acres shortly after she and I graduated from Western Washington University in 2010. Since then, she’s been taking care of the land a lot more than she expected to because her husband has been working long hours at a refinery nearby. After several seasons of unmanageable weeds, building projects left half-finished and too many tomatoes to handle, she recently, and perhaps only half-jokingly, gave him an ultimatum: she won’t weed until she gets more help at the farm.

The farm sits next to Highway 11, the same road that becomes Chuckanut Drive (the beautiful, forest-lined turns that wind along the cliffs and shores of Bellingham Bay and Samish Bay). The Skagit Valley, “may just sit below sea level,” noted June as we walked through her garden.

This area is renowend for it’s fertile soils. Among the highlights of the season have been bright tomatoes (“too many!”), orange pumkins and warty squash, strawberries and mint. I particularly enjoyed seeing a colorful variety of beans. We shelled a few to see the difference inside and uncovered pink, white, and black treasures. June has also planted Cherokee Beans because she is part Cherokee. These beans are a bit smaller and flatter than the regular black beans she has planted. Since she has only found one recipe for these beans online, she is still experimenting with how best to cook them.

When I asked if I could take photos of the gardens, June laughed and said the caption should read “This is what happens when you need more help in the garden.” Her husband, laughing, asked if I meant I wanted to take photos of the weed garden.

“This is what happens when you need more help in the garden.”

“This is what happens when you need more help in the garden.”

She’s also planted what she calls a “victory garden,” which are raised beds that sit two feet from her front door and provides carrots and salad greens for the kitchen. Across the yard are three turkeys that squawk at the passing cars. These are the turkeys that her vegan daugher was a bit uncertain about keeping, until June explained that if part of the family was going to eat meat, she preferred it to be meat that had lived humanely. And what better way to monitor that than raise it yourself. “Dont you think?” she asked me. I nodded in agreement.

Victory Garden

Victory Garden outside the kitchen window

Turkeys

In contrast, the neighbor’s cow barn to the north, which houses hundreds of cows indoors, reminds us that some farmed animals rarely enjoy daylight or outdoor grazing. The shit-pit adjacent to the cow barn will occasionally bring less than lovely smells southward. There is also the risk that runoff from the pit after heavy rains could contaminate surrounding water sources or the soil.

For June, part of the challenge of living among other farmers is the possibility that the farming practices of others will effect her own. The cow barn is one example. Another is the “round-up ready” corn that was previously planted in a neighboring field. We talked about the risks this could pose to the valley, such as its effect on the soil and potential cross-contamination of seeds. June remarked that there is also organic corn nearby, but that the transition from soils planted with GMO crops to organic could take a while.

June has a lot of projects she wants to complete. She’s a woman of inspiring ideas and big dreams. For example, she’d like to collaborate with the organization Growing Veterans to potentially lease out some of her acres to a veteran who is now farming. As I mentioned, she and I both studied together. Our field was human services, often in the world of non-profits. That she wants to share her land with a social service organization is a perfect fit.

As I left, she and her husband resumed their Saturday task of clearing out the studio adjacent to their house. Kitchen-ware, shelves, potted plants, wood scraps and jars full of pickles began to fill the back yard. The area they cleared would hopefully soon become the back porch from which a future tenant could enjoy the view of the valley and the mountains. They’ve also considered hosting WWOOF volunteers (an idea I absolutely support, so long it works for their lifestyle).

View

View of the Skagit Valley

It’s all a work in progress, June seemed to continuously remind me. As a response, I reminded her that it’s likely going to get messy before it looks all good.


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