Planting the Seeds: Oregon Incubators Cultivate a New Farming Generation

By Craig Beebe

Over the last year, Fred Meyer has been airing television commercials proudly extolling Oregon’s bounty. “The Northwest is one of the greatest growing regions in the world,” one such commercial intones, as images of farmers plucking asparagus and blossoming orchards flash by and the announcer celebrates all the local produce Northwest consumers can purchase. (Watch it below.)

But that Northwest bounty doesn’t create itself. It depends on two things: good land and the farmers who work it.

Oregon has done an unusually good job protecting the former, thanks to land use planning and advocates around the state—our rate of farmland loss is much lower than other states, despite significant population growth in recent years.

Yet as the average age of farmers in Oregon and nationwide continues to rise, it can be quite difficult for new farmers to get started with land, capital, and expertise needed to make it.

This was one of several common themes in our New Face of Farming listening sessions of 2011 and 2012. We heard from farmers and aspiring farmers around Oregon, who encouraged us to help find new pathways to farming for a new generation to feed Oregon and the world. To that end, 1000 Friends is exploring a variety of strategies to help ensure that there is plenty of high-quality farmland to work, and plenty of aspiring farmers to successfully work it.

One strategy for cultivating a strong farming future is to give emerging farmers a hand. Several projects around Oregon are seeking to do this through an “incubator” model. Each takes its own approach and serves its own population, but together they represent an important movement to keep farmland in production—providing new meaning for “sustainable agriculture.”

Adelante Agricultura

​Many of Oregon’s future farmers will come from different backgrounds than today’s, and they may speak different languages—technically and literally.

Forest Grove-based Adelante Mujeres is one organization that is attempting to reach and serve some of these emerging farmers through an incubator program. Given that many of Oregon’s farmworkers are immigrants from Mexico and Central America, it seems quite logical to try to help them become some of Oregon’s next farmers, too. This is the mission of their Adelante Agricultura program.

The heart of this effort is a farm called La Esperanza. Located just west of downtown Forest Grove, in a small valley carved by Gales Creek across Pacific Avenue from Tom McCall Elementary, this 12-acre farm is a place for education, experimentation, and hard work. Here, dozens of people—most of them immigrants—work quarter-acre plots of land with assistance and training from Adelante’s staff.

Established in 2009, the farm is made up of quarter-acre plots, each managed by a different family or individual. They start the program by taking a 10-week course with Adelante’s professional staff, led in Spanish by Alejandro Tecum, himself a Guatemalan immigrant who came to Oregon in 1999. The courses are intended to educate the aspiring farmers about modern techniques, soil maintenance, pest management, and planning.

Participants who continue with Adelante pay $50 a season for a plot at La Esperanza and are afforded access to tools and irrigation. Farmers may pursue any business plan they like. Some have direct sales relationships with restaurants and distributors. Others sell produce at a stand at farmers markets in Forest Grove or elsewhere, or work collectively to market produce through the program’s La Esperanza Distributors.

Adelante Agricultura doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges of farming. The farm has faced challenges with water rights, concerns about its future (it is leasing land inside of the urban growth boundary), and locating permanent land for farmers, who are expected to move on after four seasons at La Esperanza. “It is an educational process,” says Tecum, for the farmers and for the program itself. Setting the farm up and preparing it for farming took a lot of work, and some trial and error.

Still, it is an empowering experience, according to some who work the land. “I am so happy doing this, because my children are learning, too” says participating farmer Karina, who spoke to us on a recent visit, her young son clinging shyly to her legs. In fact, she brings her children along with her in the fields. “It is so important for them to understand healthy food, as well,” she says. Carina sells her produce at the Forest Grove Farmers Market.

After one year, Karina has had a chance to experiment, Tecum says. “And now she has an idea of what will work. And in three years, she will be ready to move on to her own farm. That is the experience we offer.”

Esperanza farmer Nicolas, who grew up on a large farm in Hidalgo, Mexico, and now lives in Hillsboro and works as a landscaper, has been working at the farm for three years, and is now looking for his own land to farm in Washington County.

It isn’t easy, though. Nicolas is looking for a small plot near the Metro region to farm part-time. But he has found it difficult to find affordable land for sale, particularly because many plots have houses on them, vastly increasing the price. He has also struggled to find land with adequate water rights.

Still, Nicolas feels it is important to continue farming after his time at Esperanza is finished. Part of his motivation is passing the values of farming on to his children. “I want my kids to learn the work it takes to bring food to the table,” he says, though it is also clear that he finds great enjoyment in farming.

Huerto de la Familia

A similar effort to La Esperanza is taking shape outside Eugene, where local nonprofit Huerto de la Familia has been working to connect Latino families with small gardening plots for over ten years. Led by Executive Director Sarah Cantril, the organization has been growing quickly, from 12 participating families in 2004 to 65 today, on four sites around the city. The participants are mostly from Mexico, from a mix of urban and rural backgrounds.

Huerto operates under the mentality that the ability to grow one’s own food is an important part of being secure and self-sufficient, particularly for immigrants—and by having such security, these immigrants are better able to integrate into society.

Harvest of Pride: The Family Garden from Huerto de la Familia on Vimeo. This video explains some of the programs at Huerto.

Several years ago, with help from Heifer International, Huerto initiated the Small Farmers Project (SFP) to help some of these growers establish more permanent farming operations.

Starting with ten families, who decided to operate as a cooperative, SFP set up shop on leased land at the north edge of the Eugene UGB. Though getting the land into a working farm and the farmers all the equipment they needed took more time and money than many had anticipated, today the remaining families are making a real go of it, growing produce using organic practices and marketing it to restaurants and businesses in the Eugene area. They have become especially well known for their blackcap raspberries and strawberries.

Huerto spun SFP off recently to focus on its gardening programs and on planning for an incubator similar to La Esperanza at Forest Grove. Cantril says they hope to provide training about small business management and finding financing, access to land and equipment, and a head-start on finding permanent land elsewhere. They hope to partner with Berggren Demonstration Farm, a 92-acre farm owned by McKenzie River Trust and managed by EWEB, just up the McKenzie River from Eugene.

As optimistic as Cantril is about the program’s success, she has concerns about the long-term viability of new farmers’ enterprises if they cannot find land in the greater Eugene region. “I’m very concerned about conserving farmland in the area,” she says. It’s a key part of the equation.

But reaching Latinos and connecting them to farmland is an urgent mission, Cantril believes, noting that statistics are showing that a large percentage of younger farmers are Latino.

Headwaters Farm

A third, quite different incubator model just emerging in Oregon is Headwaters Farm, above the Sandy River near the community of Orient in eastern Multnomah County. The program is unique in that it is the only program in the state, and possibly the nation, to be managed by a Soil and Water Conservation District.

At 60 acres, Headwaters Farm serves a number of uses for East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District (EMSWCD), which purchased the land from a nursery business several years ago. A quarter of the site is to be used for stream restoration, and a few houses from the original owners’ family remain. But the bulk of what’s left—30 acres or so—will eventually be part of the incubator program.

The vision for Headwaters is similar to that of La Esperanza and Huerto, but the program has more emphasis on participants who already have experience in agriculture, typically as very small-scale farmers or farm workers. Unlike the other programs, there is no fixed size for their operations.

Applicants submit a business plan that includes a proposal for how much land they would like to use. If accepted, they lease the land from EMSWCD for $600 per acre per year, though the fee is gradually implemented. Organic practices will be required, and trainings will focus on connecting participants with other farmers, as opposed to basic business, marketing, and practices.

As with La Esperanza, it is intended to be a four-year program, with help at the end to transition off the farm, and a goal of keeping people in the greater Portland region.

Program manager Rowan Steele says the program’s goal is to foster a “culture of sharing and community.”

“Farming doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Steele says. “To be successful, farmers need to be networked in. We’re hoping to build and establish the network, and also tap into what already exists.”

Steele is himself a farmer, in his seventh year operating Fiddlehead Farm in Corbett. He says he’ll bring his own experiences—both successes and failures—to helping the participants in the program. “Every single aspect of farming, I have lessons and ideas to share,” he laughs.

In March, the program selected its first five farms from a competitive pool. They will be growing a diverse set of crops on about ten acres, including mixed vegetables, cut flowers, storage crops, and even bees. Two of the farms will be managed by Russian immigrants.

One of the participants, Jennifer James, owns a cut-flower business called Flower Floozy Gardens. James has long experience with farming apprentice programs, from Worldwide Workers on Organic Farms, to the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz.

But a few years ago, she decided it was time to begin working on her own business.

Land has been a challenge, though, so James has been operating on leased and “borrowed” land in Portland, including friends’ backyards. Now that she is accepted to the Headwaters program, she is thrilled for what she says is a two-thirds increase in her total land. Instead of driving to three sites, now she has one. Even if it is 35 minutes outside of the city, it adds up to big savings in time and money.

She says the program gives her the stability to expand the subscription model she’s calling “Community-Supported Floriculture,” similar to Community-Supported Agriculture, in which businesses or individuals might get a fresh box of flowers each week for their offices, restaurants, or homes.

Since Headwaters’ application process required her to develop a business plan, it helped her “hone in on the numbers,” she says, and find a plan for space and marketing that can make her business more profitable.

She is also excited about the community aspects of Headwaters, from supportive partners to shared equipment and bulk purchase orders.

This is just the beginning for Headwaters, which one day hopes to grow to a dozen or more farms. Steele says it is a good fit for the District’s mission of conservation and restoration. “Farming is central to the region’s ecology and economy,” he says. “It is vital that we keep farmland in production and ease the generational transition.”

Keeping farmland in farming—a key mission of 1000 Friends. While we often focus on the important role of keeping some things off farmland, like encroaching urbanization and incompatible uses, it’s just as important to help emerging farmers get on the land. These programs are doing that hard work, and Oregon is stronger for it.

And if Fred Meyer finds it a good theme for its advertising—all the better.

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