The future of agriculture, one farmer at a time

Viva Farms is an incubator farm that provides new farmers affordable access to land, equipment, markets and education. The farm is one of three programs operated by, an international nonprofit dedicated to recruiting, training and capitalizing the next generation of sustainable farmers across the U.S. and in more than 50 countries. Studies show that the vast majority of new farmers are immigrants with extensive agricultural experience and young people of nonfarming backgrounds who see farming as an embodiment of social, cultural, environmental and economic values.

A succulent strawberry grown at student Regino Flores’ farm.

The 2007 Census of Agriculture shows that U.S. farmers and ranchers are becoming more diverse. The number of farm operators of Spanish, Hispanic or Latino origin continues to rise. The 2007 Census of Agriculture counted a total of 82,462 Hispanic operators on 66,671 farms and ranches across the U.S. The number of Hispanic operators grew 14 percent from 2002, significantly outpacing the 7 percent increase in U.S. farm operators overall. A total of 55,570 U.S. farms had a principal operator of Spanish, Hispanic or Latino origin in 2007, up 10 percent from 2002.

Viva Farms serves all new farmers, Latino and non-Latino alike. Strengthening ties between farmers of different backgrounds is core to the Viva Farms program and a priority for Sarita Schaffer, co-founder and director of Viva Farms in Burlington, Wash. She doubles as a regional coordinator of Washington State University’s Latino Farming Program.

Student Santiago Lozano, owner and operator of Lozano Farms.

Schaffer, her husband, Ethan, and her brother-in-law, Grayson, founded GrowFood in 2001. All three were under 21 years old. Grayson runs the website. Ethan directs GrowFood and other socially responsible programs in the U.S. He earned a master’s degree in sustainable business from the Bainbridge Graduate Institute and is a Brower Youth Award Winner of 2002. The award is presented annually to six North American environmental and social justice leaders under the age of 23. Schaffer manages GrowFood’s international program and directs Viva Farms, the newest project. She has studied and advanced agricultural entrepreneurship in the U.S. and Latin America, most recently in Paraguay as a Fulbright Fellow.

Viva Farms was launched in June 2009 as an organic, bilingual incubator farm that offers multiple entry points to new farmers whose previous experience with farming and business management can vary significantly. The farm is close to completing its three-year transition period for its Washington State Depart-ment of Agriculture organic certification. Viva Farms focuses on providing new farmers access to land and infrastructure, market, capital, and training and education.

Student Regino Flores, owner and operator of Regino’s Farm, and family.

Under GrowFood, Viva Farms partners with Washington State University/Skagit County Extension to teach a program called Cultivating Success. The program is comprised of classroom and field components taught in English and Spanish. Schaffer teaches Sustainable Small Farming and Agricultural Entrepreneurship and Farm Business Planning classes.

“Thirty students – approximately half who are Latino – completed the first bilingual course in 2009, and even more signed up for Skagit’s bilingual course the following year,” Schaffer said. “For new farmers who are ready to implement a farm business plan following the two courses, the Port of Skagit leases 33 acres to Viva Farms, which, in turn, subleases plots to farm start-ups. Farmers currently operating at the farm incubator range in ages from 19 to 50 and sublease .5 to 2-acre plots.”

Funding is available through the USDA Risk Management Agency, USDA SARE, USDA Higher Education Challenge Grants and USDA CSREES Western Center for Risk Management Education. Microloans are disbursed to Viva Farms’ farmers to cover their basic start-up costs and licenses. Farmers pay back these short-term loans by the end of the production season. Since Viva Farms is rapidly expanding, Schaffer is exploring a partnership with a local credit union.

After reviewing students’ business plans, David Younguist, farm manager, oversees field education, operations and production. Besides his degree in agricultural business and technology management from Washington State University, his background includes organic certification and production. Youngquist coordinates day-to-day operations and teaches sustainable agriculture.

Among sustainable soil applications, new farmers can choose Drammatic Organic Fertilizer.

“Fish scraps that were going into landfills or into wastewater treatment plants are now beneficial to the environment and soil,” said Casey Schoenberger, western sales manager for Dramm Corporation. “Approximately 15 species of fish scraps make up our liquid fertilizer. We have deals with processing plants on the Great Lakes to transfer fish scraps into refrigeration, because we are not interested in rotting fish. Fish scraps are ground and pH-stabilized, and then cold-processed by a natural enzymatic liquefying technique. Lastly, the solution is fine-filtered to create 100 percent pure liquid fish hydrolysate that feeds microbes.”

A long-held method of feeding microbes is cover crops. In addition to providing land to start-up farmers, Viva Farms is making space for young researchers. Washington State University graduate Erik Landry is working on his Ph.D. in crop science. He grows experimental cover crops of lupine, European clover, vetch, chickling vetch, wheat, rye, oats and barley. He will be sharing his research outcome with his peers and the new farmers at Viva Farms.

According to participant Jonathan Harman, “Viva Farms redefines family, crossing the bridges of class, culture and race. We are learning that farming involves relations and connecting with people face-to-face. Farming brings the challenges of water, energy and providing sustenance, giving a sense of independence.”

Viva Farms’ on-site processing plant enhances independence. It consists of a wash shed with sinks and storage, a cooler and a propagation greenhouse. Favorite certified organic seed companies include Uprising Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Seeds of Change and nearby Osborne Seed Company. Osborne tests newly developed seed varieties from seed-producing companies all over the world to determine which seeds perform best in Skagit Valley’s unique growing conditions.

The majority of students work during the day, so evenings and weekends are the busiest field times. They proudly work their neat rows of vegetables, herbs and strawberries. Harman lent his carpenter expertise to help build the on-site market stand on Viva Farms’ Highway 20 frontage, where the new farmers’ produce is sold. When new farmers sublease plots, they become owners and operators of their own farm, reaping monetary benefits or losses. Viva Farms partners with Growing Washington to offer Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) food boxes for 20 weeks. Customers choose between selecting their preferred produce or letting the new farmers select the freshest and best produce each week. Vegetables include asparagus, beans, beets, bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, carrots, eggplant, fennel, leeks, onions, peas, peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, kale, potatoes and squash. New farmers make deliveries to work locations where five or more customers organize for box pickup, including the city of Anacortes and the ports of Anacortes and Skagit. Moreover, new farmers sell their produce to local restaurants, United General Hospital in Sedro Woolley and Skagit Valley Hospital in Mount Vernon.

Nelida Martinez is successfully establishing her farm business in the region. She named her farm plot Pure Nelida Farm, and her logo depicts a drawing of herself cradling a large white onion with a long green stem.

“When Nelida told me how she had transported family heirloom seeds and plant starts with her from Oaxaca [Mexico] to California, tended them in the migrant camps, and then moved them to Washington, I knew she was an ideal candidate for the new Latino farming program that I was helping Washington State University/Skagit County Extension launch in [Skagit] Valley,” Schaffer said.

Student Erik Landry and experimental clover for cover crop.

A basket of Viva Farms bounty.

Martinez was born in a subsistence farming community in Oaxaca, Mexico. After marrying at age 16, she and her husband migrated to the U.S. They toiled 12 years on commercial farms in California and later headed north, seeking farm work in lush Skagit Valley. They added six children to their family, and a steady stream of relatives joined them in their search for a better life. Life took a turn for the worse when one of Martinez’s sons fell ill. Since she had no car, she carried him to the closest hospital. The doctors diagnosed late-stage leukemia and ordered treatment immediately. Martinez quit farming and accompanied her son back and forth between Mount Vernon and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, about a 120-mile round-trip. She was determined to pay for the cancer treatment herself, cooking and selling tamales and tortillas. After her son went into remission, Martinez stepped up organic production at home. She grew a community garden plot at her farm-worker housing complex.

“Nelida enrolled immediately in our first bilingual Sustainable Small Farming and Ranching course,” Schaffer said. “She graduated and signed up for the advanced Farm Business Planning Course and developed a business plan for a 3-acre diversified organic farm. She leases 1 acre at Viva Farms and 2 acres at a second site. Her goal is to purchase 10 acres with a house, where she can live and expand her organic produce sales that now complement her already established food business.”

“In order to sustain the local food economy, it is important to support a new generation of farmers so that the land does not slip into the hands of nonagricultural development or into different types of agriculture than Skagitonians want,” Schaffer said.

Once new farmers establish thriving farm businesses, Viva Farms helps them relocate to new land to expand their operations. A more robust loan program is being developed to finance farmers who are ready to spin off from Viva Farms and continue on their own.

The author is a freelance contributor based in Anacortes, Wash.