There’s a lot of rhetoric about immigrants threatening “American jobs.” But in the Skagit Valley, they may be the only ones who can save small, family farms.
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.
The people at Viva farms, a “farm incubator” outside Burlington, believe 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.
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“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 populations, 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. Viva rents acreage and equipment to farmers at an affordable yearly rate. The organization also helps participants access markets and offers regular workshops on topics like organic-farming practices and applying for loans.
The goal is to provide the chance to new farmers to fail and succeed in a supported environment while they build toward owning their own businesses.
“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 16 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 3¼ acres to avoid standing water.
Last year he had his best season ever.
Soto’s is one of 28 farm businesses Viva has incubated since 2010; 44 percent 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 its 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, 15, 20 acres for farming, and the rest maybe for some cows and a home.”
What could be more American than that?