Farm centers are educating and equipping new farmers and agricultural workers—in the throes of a harsh economic climate—and working to empower local food systems.
In the next 10 years, 70% of local food producers will retire without successors to take their places, according to the Washington Land Trust. Meanwhile, prospective new farmers often find farmland unaffordable and face other barriers including systemic racism, and the supply of farmland is shrinking as tracts are converted to other uses.
“The average age of American farmers is 50 and with that challenge comes passing along the farm business or the farmland into the hands of their children or someone that they know,” said David Alvarez, communications manager for Viva Farms in Mount Vernon. “Because farming is not the most lucrative business, there’s a lot of people who don’t want to follow in the footsteps of their fathers or mothers.”
In Whatcom and Skagit counties, two of the state’s larger agricultural communities, the challenge to bring in new farmers is being met by farm centers aiming to protect and steward farmland and ensure that local produce is reaching all community, said Elizabeth Hayes of Cloud Mountain Farm Center in Whatcom County.
In the absence of an agricultural higher-education degree program in the area, farming knowledge and opportunities are offered by farm centers and educational organizations, Hayes said. That’s where Cloud Mountain Farm Center, Viva Farms and experiential education farms like Western Washington University’s Outback Farm come in.
On a related track, Washington State University’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences operates a research and extension center in Mount Vernon. Faculty and student researchers pursue projects in soil health, plant pathologies, alternative crops and other agricultural and horticultural topics, in concert with local, regional, national and international partners.
Viva Farms, a 13-year-old nonprofit, is working to support farm workers from all walks of life, particularly historically under-represented women and exploited Latino farm workers, to become farm owners. Viva has a site in Skagit County focused on wholesale produce and a site in King County focused on growing culturally specific produce.
Cloud Mountain was founded as an orchard 42 years ago and today grows various crops, hosts a retail nursery and landscaping team, and for 11 years has operated as a nonprofit to provide education, experience and community to expand local food systems.
Farm centers educate new farmers and specialized agricultural workers so they can contribute to their regional food systems, Hayes said.
Cloud Mountain teaches small- to mid-scale farmers about crops that generate higher margins of income and organic fruit production, and previously offered a farmer apprentice and internship program which was suspended during the COVID-19 shutdown.
Viva Farms offers an eight-month long practicum and sustainable agriculture course about seeding, transplanting, harvesting, weeding and business structure, loans, grants and employee management.
Though Western doesn’t offer an agricultural degree, students attending Fairhaven College gain entry-level experiential knowledge about food production, ecological restoration and permaculture practices at the university’s five-acre Outback Farm. Students can get their hands dirty in the farm’s perennial food forest and garden plots during projects and classes, said farm manager and professor Terri Kempton.
Cloud Mountain and Viva Farms often see their students move from agricultural courses and internships to the farm centers’ incubator farms, as well as seeing applicants from outside their programs and other counties.
Incubating for the future
Farmers can rent plots on Cloud Mountain’s 10 acres of incubation land and Viva Farm’s 119 acres at subsidized rates, and share farm equipment.
On the incubator farms, new farmers can “get familiar with equipment, field-scale production, and build the base of their business without the financial risk and capital expense of going it alone,” Hayes said. After three to five years, farmers will hopefully be equipped with a business model and can look for secure land tenure in another form.
“My hope and dream long term is that it is absolutely a viable local opportunity for folks, especially younger folks from the county, to see themselves having a future in farming,” Hayes said.
With incubated farms occupying an acre or half an acre, Viva Farms hosts 35 farm businesses across their three incubation sites, Alvarez said. Cloud Mountain had five growers last season and is looking for applications by November.
In addition to affordable, leasable land, Cloud Mountain provides commercial producers with dry storage, cold storage and a truck bay for aggregation and distribution via semitrucks, Hayes said. Cloud Mountain is the northernmost aggregation center for the Puget Sound Food Hub, a regional hub that runs refrigerated trucks from near the U.S.-Canada border to Tacoma and the San Juan Islands, transporting about a half a million dollars of local produce along the I-5 corridor.
Having resources to aggregate produce is often cost-prohibitive for individual farms, Hayes said, and having access to Cloud Mountain’s commercial storage and loading facilities helps the bottom line of farmers.
Cloud Mountain also hosts a processing room where small- to mid-scale producers can rent space to store preserved or processed produce, Hayes said. They can sell that produce as seasonal markets taper off, and avoid the expense and paperwork of building their own processing room.
Local flavor—and resilience
Though local produce can be found on the same shelf as imported food in some local groceries, local produce must compete with the distribution and processing efficiency of imported food in order to offer a competitive price point, Hayes said.
“Can we compete on both a price and a quality standpoint?” Hayes asked. “The storytelling and morality piece of local food only goes so far.”
Local produce tends to be more nutritious and taste better than pesticide-coated grocery produce grown for preservation, Alvarez said. It also gives consumers an opportunity to invest in the local economy and community.
“The food and farm landscape in its best iteration can bridge a lot of gaps,” Hayes said. “There’s a lot of value in understanding and humanizing the people who grow food, the people who distribute that food and knowing people throughout that entire supply chain.”
Keeping dollars local can be economic resilience against the world’s economic insecurities, too, especially if supply chains, production, processing, distribution, and cooking are all kept local, Hayes said.
By stimulating Skagit County’s already strong agricultural economy, the dreams of local agricultural families are supported, Alvarez said. “Supporting these beginning farmers is an investment into your future, community, and your children’s future.”
Consumers stand to gain when investing in local food systems by being able to communicate with local farmers and ask questions at public intersection points like farmers markets, Kempton said: “[Farmers markets are] this kind of magic: You’re keeping your dollars local, you’re getting to know your farmers, you’re supporting your neighbors, you’re encountering your neighbors, you’re having conversations.”
Cloud Mountain and the Outback Farm are also working to strengthen local food systems by teaching self-sufficient food production.
Cloud Mountain teaches home-scale production out of their nursery with garden workshops based on fruit production and perennial growing that will be expanding in 2023, Hayes said.
“We are in tough times,” Kempton said. “I think that a lot of people, especially young people, are looking at the future and seeing a very uncertain picture, and our food system is quite fragile.”
“We’re going to have a lot of changes in how food is grown and produced and the more people who know how to do some of that, then the better off we will be.”
When teaching young people to connect with their local food systems, the Outback Farm also distributes their produce to students experiencing food insecurity at free farmers markets and food pantries across the Western campus.
Viva Farms, Cloud Mountain and their incubation farmers sell produce at local farmer’s markets, at co-ops and during Eat Local month, and distribute weekly through Viva Farm’s Community Supported Agriculture subscription. The farm centers also help farmers secure relationships with local restaurants.
“Having chefs that are tuned into the seasonality and availability of what can be grown here is mutually beneficial for everyone,” Hayes said. “It’s a great outlet for small and midsize farmers who have unique crops to know that they have buyers in local restaurants. There is a lot of value in building a regional cuisine to have the restaurants that are gaining a lot of reputation and notoriety being based on local ingredients and local sources.”
Alvarez argues that local, organic, pesticide-free food should be a human right, but said producers are being deterred by the expenses of land and the low earnings of agricultural work.
Buying, building and operating a farm is a farmer’s sole form of income. That is exceptionally daunting, Hayes said, especially when vacation, flexibility, healthcare, retirement and savings are not guarantees.
Finding affordable land to buy was reported as the top challenge for young farmers, in a survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition. Among all young farmers, 59% ranked it as “very or extremely challenging”; among farmers of color, 68% of Indigenous and 66% of Black ranked it “very or extremely challenging”.
“We want to make our farmers feel empowered and that they’re getting paid a fair wage,” Alvarez said. “When that happens, that strengthens the community because now that farmer can pay their bills and their children’s education.”
However, Alvarez said, it’s a challenge to bring in young farmers.
Hayes noted that agriculture is a compelling and contributing sector of the local economy and that there are jobs in the food system, beyond being a farmer, in areas such as operations, management, business, education, design, human resources and IT. Hayes said she is excited that Career Connect Washington identified agriculture as an emerging job sector this year and hopes it will help post-graduate outreach.
Kempton and the Outback Farm team maintain connections with graduates who now work on local farms, and hope to begin an experiential program for Outback students to work on bigger farms and gain experience and foster job and internship connections. Some of Kempton’s students have enrolled at Cloud Mountain and continued to apprentice in farm work, and some have become beekeepers.
Because of the farming industry’s capital demands and risks, Hayes recommends anyone interested in agricultural work or becoming a farmer first go out and work on a farm to learn about the business and find a specialized interest.
“This is going to be a challenging journey,” Alvarez said. “But these people [farmers] absolutely love it. They’re like artists. They recognize that challenge, but they love it so much that the benefits of being a farmer outweigh those challenges.”
—Reported by Kai Uyehara
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