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.'

Courtesy of Amanda Wilson (
Sarita and Ethan Schaffer started Viva Farms near Seattle to teach budding farmers how to grow food in a sustainable way.

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.

“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, 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, 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.

“It’s like the United Nations,” says Mr. Schaffer of the headphones students wear in class to accommodate the simultaneous translation. “We think it’s important to help build community between the English- and Spanish-speaking farmers. Latino farm workers are so vital to our farm system,” he says.

The mix of cultures is even more exciting once students graduate and lease plots on the farm, Mrs. Schaffer says. “Latinos are introducing how to use things we see as invasive weeds as something to be eaten.

"We’re all looking at food and farming through a different lens,” she says. “The incubator is about sharing tools, discoveries, and tips.”

Both Mr. and Mrs. Schaffer come from nonagricultural families in Idaho, but became interested in farming for social and environmental reasons. Mr. Schaffer was diagnosed with cancer when he was 16, and believes the way his food was grown played a role in his illness. After he went into remission, the couple traveled to New Zealand where they fully immersed themselves in working on farms.

“It was such hard work,” Mr. Schaffer says. “But at the same time it was really rewarding. Wheelbarrows full of manure and compost, working all day long and just feeling exhausted and satisfied by the end of the day.”

Without efforts such as Viva Farms, big agriculture will just get bigger, Mr. Schaffer says. Even “old-time” farmers who don’t practice organic methods still understand important principles like maintaining soil quality and being good stewards of the land. But the farm landscape has changed in recent years with big companies and hedge funds buying up farmland for real estate development and so-called factory farming.

“Food prices are going up, and the focus is on short-term yield by dumping pesticides,” Mr. Schaffer says.

Nelida Martinez and her daughter, Lisette Flores, lease a plot of land from Viva Farms. Before taking her first class in 2009, Mrs. Martinez was an avid gardener living in a farm-worker housing development. She was selling food from her community garden to help pay her son’s medical bills, while her daughter, Ms. Flores, was working at a fast-food restaurant.

Joining her mother at Viva Farms was the first time Ms. Flores had ever farmed. “My favorite part is seeding and transferring the seeds to soil,” Ms. Flores says. “I get to see it grow from a little tiny seed to full plants.” She also discovered vegetables she had never tried before, like broccoli.

If she and her mother hadn’t learned about Viva Farms, Flores says, she would probably still be working at a fast-food restaurant. “It’s really hard to start farming,” she says. “Viva Farms is giving us a real chance to start a difficult business without quitting in discouragement.”

“Pure Nelida,” the name of their farm on a Viva Farms plot, just broke even this year. Now the mother-daughter team has expanded and leased a bit more land. They are growing cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, carrot, radishes, and tomatoes.

“Our dream is to buy a farm,” Flores says. “But right now Viva gives us a place to sell our crops, which is key,” she says, referring to the roadside farmstand.

“We’re not just cultivating food, but the next generation of farmers,” Mrs. Schaffer says. One hundred percent of profits go back into education, training, and equipment, she says. “This program is definitely replicable. It could work every place people are eating.”

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