Viva Farms: Continuing the legacy of farming in Skagit Valley
As the executive director of Viva Farms, Michael Frazier is well aware that the Skagit County nonprofit where he’s worked since the end of the 2014 farming season has become a vital resource for those looking to make a living from the land. We caught up Frazier for more details about how the business incubator that debuted in 2009 is helping ensure the future is full of farmers.
Cascadia Weekly: Is it true that only 108,500 acres of Skagit County’s 1.1 million acres are farmed? Why is that?
Michael Frazier: It varies by year, and it is safe to say around 100,000 are farmed, which means we’ve lost around a third of our farmland since 1940. This is a rapid and concerning decline of such a precious and irreplaceable resource. Skagit soil is in the top two percent of the most productive farmland in the world, and grows more than 80 different crops. It’s really pretty amazing. Unfortunately, due to many factors, including population and development pressure, an aging farmer population, and the challenge beginning farmers have in learning how to farm and financing a new farm, we are at risk of losing even more.
CW: How does Viva Farms aim to change those numbers?
MF: Viva Farms supports aspiring farmers by providing bilingual training in sustainable organic farming, and access to land, infrastructure, equipment, marketing and capital. We have two land- based incubator farms located in Skagit County where beginning and intermediate farmers can access these essentials to start, and then scale their farm businesses.
At the core of our training is an accredited three-quarter practicum, which offers students real-life experience in every aspect of a successful farming operation through a full farming season. After completion of the prerequisite practicum training, beginning farmers can launch their new businesses onsite and access all the essentials mentioned previously, including ongoing training and technical assistance in both group and one-on-one settings.
In addition, we deliver risk management and crop insurance workshops which draw farmers from across Washington. Along with this land and training, we provide greenhouses, high-tunnels, a wash and pack station, walk-in refrigeration, tractors and implements, product aggregation and distribution services, and capital.
CW: Your bio says your job is to help bridge the gap between socially disadvantaged food producers and economic development and local food security by working directly with community partners to grow successful farm businesses. How is this achieved?
MF: We are only as successful as we are because of the mutually beneficial partnerships we have built with farmers, consumers, agricultural organizations and other community partners.
A specific example is a new project with WSU Extension, Community Action of Skagit County, Catholic Community Services, and the USDA—which pays Skagit Family Farmers for their fresh produce, and delivers it to low-income community members through a reduced-cost, community supported agriculture (CSA) program.
It is a win for everyone when farmers can make a living, and our neighbors have enough healthy food to eat. One of the essentials not mentioned previously when speaking about what farmers need to be successful is community. By creating a local network for farmers, and a place where farmers work literally side by side, everyone has more capacity, knowledge and support to draw from and become successful.
CW: What does a typical summer day at Viva Farms look like?
MF: I laughed aloud at this question. I immediately imagined a beehive and the air filled with lots of dust. Being a nonprofit farm business incubator teaching sustainable agriculture bilingually in the dirt, we tend to have lots to do, move really fast, and stir things up— including the Skagit soil I spoke about earlier. In real life, this looks like people, equipment and food moving in all directions with intention.
CW: Reading through the “Farm at Viva” requirements, it seems as if farmers need to be serious about follow-through to be a part of what you’re offering—land, equipment/infrastructure, training, markets and capital. How many new farmers make the cut each year?
MF: We have increased our requirements over the years, and are now really geared toward folks that are serious about owning and/or operating a farm business. We really only have the capacity to take on up to 15 students in our practicum training each year.
As far as incubators, it really depends on the scale and therefore acreage of the farms we are assisting in any giving year. In both 2016 and 2017 we did not have enough land to meet the demand, and were only able to bring on two new farms each year. This year, we have 13 family farms representing over 20 farmers with us. Some exciting news on this front is that we just purchased a new 45-acre farm to expand and support an increased number of new family farms each year.
CW: How long does each farmer commit to working their acreage at Viva Farms?
MF: Our original site at the Port of Skagit, another great partner, requires a one-year lease. We are considering lease terms at the new 45-acre farm, “Viva II,” We envision this new land for intermediate farmers needing more acres, and potentially a longer-term lease.
CW: What do you love about what you do? What are the challenges?
MF: I love many things about Viva and the mission. I am fortunate to work with passionate people (farmers, staff and partners) committed to making a positive difference in the world. I am passionate about taking care of our community, both the place and the people, and being part of providing the resources for the next generation of sustainable family farms, while nourishing the local community with the bounty of all the hard work is rewarding.
CW: On Sat., July 22, Viva Farms will be hosting a “Long Live Farms: Feast & Frolic in the Field” dinner. Aside from being a way for people to support the farm, what else can attendees dining on the locally sourced meal expect at the tasty fundraiser?
MF:They’ll get to meet and mingle with farmers on prime Skagit Valley farmland at our beautiful new 45-acre organic farm. After dinner, they can dance with us to live music under the Skagit Sky; all while enjoying drinks from FARMSTRONG Brewery, Tulip Valley Winery, and Bluewater Distilling.
CW: In what other ways can Skagitonians support Viva Farms?
MF: Folks can join our CSA, volunteer and join us on social media.
To order tickets for “Long Live Farms: Feast & Frolic in the Field,” go to http://www.vivafarms.org/longlivefarms