‘Incubator’ trains migrants to breathe life into dying family farms

Mauricio Soto who owns Arado Farms, grows raspberries on land he leases from Viva Farms along Highway 20 in the Skagit Valley. (Photo by Mike Siegal / The Seattle Times)
Mauricio Soto who owns Arado Farms, grows raspberries on land he leases from Viva Farms along Highway 20 in the Skagit Valley. (Photo by Mike Siegal / The Seattle Times)

We’ve been hearing a lot of rhetoric lately about immigrants threatening “American jobs.” But what if immigrants are the answer to saving one of our country’s most romanticized institutions: the small family farm?

Family farming in America has long been under threat. Corporatization, consolidation and globalization have all eroded what many think of as an American tradition. Often children of farmers are interested in professions outside the family business. As a result, the average age of a farmer in the U.S. is now 58.

The Skagit Valley, north of Everett may look like a picture perfect patchwork of mountain-framed farmland, but it too is threatened by the loss of young farmers and rapid development.

Viva farms, a “farm incubator” outside Burlington believes they have found a way to encourage a new generation of farmers. The nonprofit offers training and support to aspiring farmers with a special focus on the area’s growing Hispanic population.

“Who is going to be the next generation of farmers? Well there’s a pretty big pool of people here that have the experience, the passion, the background and the work ethic,” says Rob Smith of Viva. He’s referring to local Hispanic residents, many of whom originally arrived in the area as migrant workers. “But there’s an obstacle in that a lot of those folks don’t have the capital.”

By capital he means money to buy or lease land and invest in infrastructure as well as social connections and the knowledge to run a business in the U.S.

To address these gaps Viva offers starter farms on land leased from the Port of Skagit County. Viva rents acreage and equipment to farmers at an affordable yearly rate. The organization also helps participants to access markets and offers regular workshops on topics like organic farming practices and applying for loans.

The goal is to provide the chance for new farmers to fail and succeed in a supported environment while they build towards owning their own businesses.

“The first year… you’re really playing farm. You tell people that you’re farming but if a real farmer sees you he’ll say, ‘are you kidding?’”

“I’ve been in this country for 26 years, and I’ve been always working in the fields,” says Mauricio Soto, who has been with Viva since 2013. Soto is originally from Mexico, where he grew up farming.

He came to the Skagit Valley sixteen years ago to work in the berry fields. Since then he’s settled, started a family and built a pruning and trimming business. But his dream is to run his own farm, and he’s spent the last four years at Viva working on his berry brand “Arado” (or “plow” in Spanish).

“The first year, it’s not good because you’re really playing farm,” says Soto while walking through ankle deep mud out to his field, “You tell people that you’re farming but if a real farmer sees you he’ll say, ‘are you kidding?’”

Soto claims he made “a hundred mistakes” his first season, including planting too many different varietals and resisting taking out loans. But today he can tell you how many “sun units” a certain California plant needs and exactly where to plant on his three and a quarter acres to avoid standing water.

Last year he had his best season ever.

Garlic, growing through holes punched into plastic, is one of the farming methods taught at Viva Farms where farmers take classes and learn how to farm, work the soil and maintain crops. (Photo by Mike Siegal / The Seattle Times)
Garlic, growing through holes punched into plastic, is one of the farming methods taught at Viva Farms where farmers take classes and learn how to farm, work the soil and maintain crops. (Photo by Mike Siegal / The Seattle Times)

Soto is one of 28 farm businesses Viva has incubated since 2010 — 44% of those farmers are Latino or Indigenous Latino and their average age is 40. Food grown at Viva shows up in Seattle in Molly Moon’s sorbets, Agua Verde tacos and on the shelves of grocery stores around town.

And demand is growing.

In response Viva has teamed up with PCC Farmland Trust, a nonprofit that works to preserve farmland, to buy 45 additional acres to help expand their programming.

“We want to have an impact that goes beyond the environment,” says Molly Goren of PCC Farmland Trust, “but also impact people’s lives and jobs.

It’s an impact that influences Soto’s plans for his future.

“My own farm is the goal. It’s not going to be easy but I don’t think it’s impossible” he says, standing among the dormant raspberry bushes he’ll be picking alongside his family come summer. “Ten, fifteen, twenty acres for farming, and the rest maybe for some cows and a home.”

What could be more American than that?

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Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.
Sarah Stuteville

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