Viva Farms grows a new generation of farmers
Through Viva Farms, Sarita and Ethan Schaffer introduce newcomers to farming and teach sustainable techniques as an alternative to 'factory farms.'
Dressed in a bright orange shirt and khaki pants, Ethan Schaffer stands in front of a captive audience at the Social Innovation Fast Pitch taking place in Seattle in early October.Skip to next paragraph
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“Who will grow your food?” Mr. Schaffer asks the audience, who votes to award a cash grant to the best idea and presentation at the fast pitch event. “These guys?” he probes, pointing to a large photo of an elderly couple holding a pitchfork, reminiscent of the classic painting "American Gothic." “The average age of a farmer in the United States … is 57 years old; 70 percent of farmland is owned by farmers who will retire in the next 20 years,” he says.
These statistics concern Mr. Schaffer, and his wife Sarita Schaffer. The young couple has been working in the organic food movement since they helped found growfood.org, a website aimed at connecting people with farms, in 2001 at the age of 19. Their presentation at the Social Innovation Fast Pitch was for a new project called Viva Farms, which won two audience choice awards and the first prize nonprofit award that day.
Viva Farms offers bilingual education on farming and farm management in partnership with Washington State University Extension and growfood.org, and runs a local farm "incubator" for start-up farmers, offering them land, equipment, and other help. The goal is to train the next generation of American farmers and contribute to a sustainable food system.
“Historically land has been passed down from generation to generation within a family,” Mrs. Schaffer says in a telephone interview. “But with new access to education, farmers’ kids now have an opportunity to choose nonfarming professions, which is great. But also means the number of young people pursuing farming has decreased by 37 percent since 1989.”
Viva Farms tries to help new farmers overcome the many technical and financial barriers they face.
“There are five things every start-up farmer needs,” Mrs. Schaffer says. These include education in farm management, access to land, equipment (like tractors) and infrastructure (like irrigation and cold storage), start-up capital, and marketing and distribution support.
“On the one hand, the culture of farming is disappearing. But on the other hand, it is being totally reinvented,” Mrs. Schaffer says. “Everyone has a different perspective on how food should be produced. They’re even using Facebook to sell products,” she says.
Many new farmers come from nonfarm families, which means they may lack the first-hand knowledge of what it takes to be a farmer. Others have been farming their entire lives on other people’s land and are looking to learn the managerial skills needed to start their own operations.
Skagit Valley, just 60 miles north of Seattle, has some of the richest farmland in the country. Viva Farms leases a 33-acre stretch of land there and sub-leases one-to-three-acre plots to start-up farmers. It also provides access to tractors and rotor tillers, marketing channels to help them sell their crops, and irrigation so that the farmers don’t have to dig wells.
Viva Farms offers its help below market cost, but it’s not free. “We’re giving them a leg up,” Mrs. Schaffer says, “but we’re not setting up unrealistic expectations in terms of the cost of doing business in farming.”
All of the farmers who work with Viva Farms first participated in a course coordinated by Mrs. Schaffer through Washington State University Extension. Viva Farms offers need-based scholarships and subsidizes nearly 30 student farmers a year. Mrs. Schaffer spent a year as a Fulbright scholar working with a microfinance institution that launched an organic-farming business school in Paraguay. She invites veteran farmers and industry experts to speak in every class session. Fluent in Spanish, she can translates into English or Spanish for the bilingual student body. Nearly half of her students are Latino.