By now, you’ve likely heard of the “graying” of American farmers. While existing farmers grow older, barriers for new farmers—which include capital investment for machinery and land, knowledge and community, and other factors—remain high. The result? Farmers are fewer and older than ever.
A host of dire problems, including climate change, soil degradation and water pollution—all exacerbated by large-scale crop and animal farming—are lending urgency to the need to create new systems and approaches. And a number of organizations are building a network and infrastructure to do just that.
One such group is Viva Farms. Based in Washington state’s Skagit Valley, Viva is to farmers what angel investors are to Silicone Valley: It provides access to land, tools and know-how for aspiring farmers who want to make sustainability the center of their operations.
At the heart of the operation is a partnership in agriculture studies with Skagit Valley College and Washington State University. Graduates of the program are eligible for Viva Farms’ incubator program, which includes access to farmland and machinery that provide a leg up to aspiring farmers.
Similar programs exist across the nation, but one of Viva’s particular strengths is its focus on the Latino community. Since the dawn of American agriculture, immigrants and U.S. citizens with Mexican and Central American heritage have played a vital role in our farming traditions. Today, a record number of Hispanic farmers either own or serve as principal operators of U.S. farms. Between 2007 and the last USDA Census of Agriculture of 2012, the number of Hispanic farmers in the U.S. grew by 21 percent (while the overall farm population declined by 4 percent).
No surprise then, that Latino and Hispanic farmers are a key force in a new, sustainable agriculture. At Viva Farms, of the 700 graduates of the program in sustainable organic farming, more than 150 were Spanish speaking.
Last year, the organization expanded its operations with the purchase of 45 acres of farmland, adding to the 30-or-so acres Viva Farms leases to provide its services. With the combined acreage, the organization hopes to expand opportunities for beginning farmers in the Skagit Valley.
In addition to its hands-on farming mission, Viva offers educational programming (and affordable CSA shares) to the surrounding community. Most recently, the farm served as a screening site for the touring Wild & Scenic Film Festival. Based in Nevada City, CA, this festival does more than celebrate the artistry of cinematography and storytelling—it also aims to “ignite solutions and possibilities to restore the earth and human communities while creating a positive future for the next generation.” The film festival brings screenings across the country to places like Viva as an alternative distribution network—and a catalyst for change.
For the organizers behind Viva, the film festival is part of a mission to build a more sustainable world. “One thing I learned from my grandfather that I still take with me today is if you want something nice, take care of something you have,” explains Viva’s executive director, Michael Frazier. His work with aspiring farmers in Skagit County, he adds, is just common sense: “to take care of the beauty and the farming community that is here in Skagit County.”
Organic Valley is proud to support Viva Farms for its work to promote sustainable farming among the next generation of family farmers.