Incubator sprouts farmers

Capital Press file Sarita Schaffer stands in a greenhouse in this June 2011 file photo at Viva Farms near Mount Vernon, Wash. The operation, which provides startup farmers access to land, equipment and training, also helps new farmers connect with markets and sources of capital.

Viva Farms offers small pieces of land, training support

By STEVE BROWN

Capital Press

EVERETT, Wash. -- Farmers just getting into the business have a long list of needs: technical assistance, land, capital, equipment and access to markets.

Sarita Schaffer told a classroom full of new and aspiring farmers about a patchwork of programs that can help. Sources include WSU Extension, Northwest Farm Credit Services, Northwest Agriculture Business Center, Sustainable Connections, USDA Rural Development, Small Business Development Centers and community and technical colleges.

At her farm incubator, Viva Farms near Mount Vernon, Wash., Schaffer endeavors to meet all the needs of startup operations.

"Everything is high priority," she said. "My mission is to make it easier for farmers to get into business than I did."

After studying a variety of business incubators, she collected the best pieces of each model.

Viva Farms, a joint operation of WSU Extension and the nonprofit GrowFood.org, leases out 1-acre parcels and guides beginning farmers in their ventures.

Schaffer described five stages of the process:

* Explorers investigate the possibility of going into farming.

* Planners develop a business plan.

* Starters execute their farm plan and have been farming for one to three years.

* Restrategizers expand their operations and specialize in their strengths. These are usually people who have been farming independently for four to seven years.

* Stable farmers have been independent for eight to 10 years.

Schaffer has worked with small farmers who started out as biologists, electrical engineers, baristas, chefs, teachers, anthropologists and artists.

"It's challenging and exciting to work with such a group," she said.

Viva Farms, barely 2 years old, has not yet "graduated" any independent farmers. But it has spawned other incubators in the region. Programs are under way with Seattle Tilth, in Whatcom County and Tieton, with one on the drawing board in Snohomish County.

Andrew Corbin, a WSU Extension educator, said the Snohomish County program "is my brainchild."

Taking the Viva Farms model, Corbin works with a group of interested partners, including the Snohomish Conservation District, Bastyr University in Seattle, the grocer Whole Foods, Everett, and the Tulalip and Stillaguamish tribes.

"The city of Everett has more than 100 acres of certified organic land ready to farm," he said. "But we need capital for infrastructure and working capital for a year-round, full-time farm manager."

Interest is high, he said, and he's looking for other regional partners.

The incubator could work "hand-in-hand" with the year-round farmers' market at the Everett Riverfront project, expected to open within two years.

Corbin said he's reluctant to pursue grants for his incubator. Schaffer aims to achieve a revenue balance at Viva Farms that is less dependent on grants.

"We get lots of free advice from WSU researchers and Skagit Extension people," she said. "And we depend on local farmers' wisdom and farm visits."

When it's time to launch, several groups can match a farmer with land. Washington Farm Link offers numerous lease options, as do GrowFood.org, land trusts and Capital Press classifieds, she said. Also county assessors' maps can tell whether a particular piece of idle land might be available.

A key piece of advice she gives beginning farmers: "Cultivate relationships. The contacts will start happening."

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