Program designed to link new farmers with capital, equipment
By STEVE BROWN
There's no shortage of help available to beginning farmers in northwest Washington state.
Viva Farms states on its website that it's an international nonprofit "dedicated to recruiting, training and capitalizing the next generation of sustainable farmers." It is a joint training venture of Washington State University Extension and GrowFood.org
Sarita Schaffer, director of the bilingual incubator program, said Viva Farms helps new farmers get land, equipment, buildings and roads; education, training and technical assistance; marketing and distribution support; and start-up loans.
Aspiring farmers start with the farm's Sustainable Small Farming and Ranching course and the Agricultural Entrepreneurship and Farm Business Planning course. They develop a farm plan and then head out to put it to work.
The Port of Skagit, Wash., has leased 33 acres to Viva Farms. Course graduates may sublease plots on which to launch and grow their farm businesses, feeding the surrounding communities' desire for community-supported agriculture and other direct markets for fresh food.
"Skagit County has the top 2 percent of soils in the world for agriculture," Schaffer said. "And where most counties have only three or four different crops, Skagit County has 89."
Viva Farms in intended to be a launching pad to long-term farm ownership, she said. The incubator includes a loan fund to help them acquire land, equipment, seeds and livestock.
The timing is right for people to get into small farming, WSU Extension educator Chris Benedict said. The market for locally grown food is mushrooming as McDonald's and Wal-mart get involved, he said.
Direct sales ing the Puget Sound area, he said, grew from $3 million in 2002 to $20 million in 2007.
Surveys have shown upcoming trends such as CSA programs specializing in a single product or value-added products. Marketing directly to institutions is growing, Benedict said, as are connections with community gardens.
Hot products include artisan breads and cheeses, mushrooms, new cuts of meat and artisan liquors.