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Western innovator: Unique incubator grows farmers

Operations raise next generation of growers across world, Washington


Capital Press

MOUNT VERNON, Wash. -- When Sarita Schaffer says, "I hope for some very healthy offspring," she's talking about successful farmers.

She and her husband, Ethan, do plan to raise a family of their own -- "They'd better be ready to be farmhands" -- but for now her efforts are focused on a different kind of incubator.

Viva Farms, in operation for a year and half, teaches people who are serious about farming as a primary occupation.

Schaffer was raised in Northern Idaho, where her mother had a 2-acre garden.

"I was conscripted at a very young age," she said. Her father was a country doctor, whose cash-poor patients often paid him in pigs, chickens or lambs. "So we'd go out and help slaughter, help with haying."

She said later stints on diversified farms in New Zealand, Washington's Puget Sound area and Idaho "tapped a lot of my passions -- the environment, being outdoors, food. I fell in love with the occupation."

Schaffer also realized how difficult it is to get into the industry unless you come from a farm family with land and equipment already in place.

With that in mind, in 2001 she and Ethan established GrowFood, a nonprofit that helps bring interns, apprentices and volunteers onto established farms.

An effort that began with 200 farms now includes 2,200 operations in all 50 states and 56 countries. At last count, she said, 20,000 farmers have used the website to make connections.

Having studied Spanish, Schaffer traveled to South America, recruiting volunteers and farmers there. She was awarded a Fulbright grant to help launch in Paraguay the world's first financially self-sufficient organic farming business school.

Returning to the Northwest, she learned that Washington State University, which had a Hispanic agricultural education program in Yakima, was looking to start one in Northwest Washington.

She started by translating the curriculum for WSU Extension's Cultivating Success program. Adding to that an outreach program, she developed the idea of a farm-incubation model that would include business applications and hands-on farm training.

Viva Farms, now in its second year, is managed by GrowFood with technical assistance from WSU. Schaffer's position is funded "half and half" by both organizations.

"I let Sarita run with it," said Don McMoran, a fourth-generation farmer and educator at WSU Skagit County Extension. "She's done a tremendous job."

Aspiring farmers start with WSU courses in sustainable farming and business planning. Some graduates take their completed farm plan and sublease plots on the 33-acre, certified organic Viva Farms, leased from the Port of Skagit.

There they launch and grow their farm businesses, developing community-supported agriculture programs and tapping other direct markets.

Don Luethy had worked on a farm before, he said, but "doing a farm was something I had no clue about. Instead of working on the farmer's schedule, I'm in the driver's seat now. I deal with the crises. I live with the consequences."

Santiago Lozano, now in his second season, grows 2 acres of strawberries at Viva Farms and 5 acres across the highway.

"I learned everything from Sarita," he said. "I asked a lot of questions."

Schaffer considers herself not just bilingual but multilingual: "English, Spanish, plus jargons of the agricultural, nonprofit, educational and academic worlds. There's a lot of change in agriculture. You need hybrid people."

Viva Farms is intended to be a launching pad, to graduate people into long-term farm ownership, she said. The incubator includes a loan fund to help students acquire land, equipment, seeds and livestock.

Many current farmers don't know how they'll keep the family farm going, she said.

"If they have no son or daughter interested in farming, there are passionate people with a very serious desire to carry on farming," she said. "We need to broaden the definition of the family farm, to see all farmers as family."

Schaffer's long-range plan is for Viva Farms to be a model for training new commercial growers. "We need medium and large farms to keep the whole supply chain intact," she said.

Sarita Schaffer

Hometown: Conway, Wash.

Age: 30

Occupation: Farm entrepreneurship educator

Education: Bachelor of arts from The Evergreen State College in nonprofit management and international studies

Family: Married to Ethan Schaffer

Quote: "The tragedy is, the more effective I am at assisting farmers, the less actual farming I get to do."





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