Incubating New Farmers

Author: Maud Powell, Oregon State University Small Farms Program

Publish Date: Fall 2010

The OSU Extension Small Farms team has identified new and beginning farmer education as a top priority of our program.

One up and coming strategy for training new producers is the farm incubator model. Farm Incubators are programs that help launch new agricultural businesses through a combination of production and business education and subsidized, centralized land tenure.

The basic concept is that these programs host and train new farmers as they produce food, share equipment, develop their markets, and learn from mentor farmers, agricultural professionals and each other. Then, once their businesses are viable, the new producers move off the incubator farm and find their own land to farm. OSU Extension Small Farms has just received a Specialty Crops grant through the Oregon Department of Agriculture to pilot an incubator program at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension center in 2011.

Incubator programs around the country have demonstrated high rates of success in developing new farm businesses. Intervale, the most well established farm incubator program in the U.S., is a non-profit organization that has managed 350 acres near Burlington, Vermont since 1988. Emerging farm businesses lease acreage from the non-profit, and receive business training and mentoring as they establish their new enterprises. Approximately 13 farm businesses have a total of 115 acres under production at Intervale. Participants move through 3 phases of the program: incubator (1-3 years), enterprise (3-5 years), and mentor (5+ years). The non-profit pays for 20% of the fees (land lease, equipment, and greenhouse/cooler space, utilities and water costs) for the farmers in the incubator phase. Incubators lease the land on a year to year basis and review their operation with Intervale staff annually. After 3 years, they can continue farming and sharing resources as an enterprise farmer. Enterprise farmers pay 100% of the fees and are extended to a 2-year lease. By year five, most farmers have moved onto their own acreage, but some opt to stay on in the farm mentor capacity. Intervale has created a dynamic, thriving agricultural community of new and established farmers through the incubator model.

Another farm incubator program, the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), focuses on supporting minority farmers. ALBA, which is located in the Salinas Valley of California, starts their incubator program with a 6-month intensive training on sustainable production methods taught in Spanish. Once the program is completed, participants graduate onto their own ½ acre parcels, which they can lease for up to 3 years. Participants are able to develop markets and production systems with the support of the program before venturing onto their own farms.

The OSU Extension Small Farms team in Southern Oregon has studied these models for the past several years and developed partnerships with other local organizations in the hopes of beginning a similar program in our region. One of our partners, THRIVE, received federal and state funding to begin the project last winter. As we began reaching out to potential participants, however; we realized that most prospective farmers in Southern Oregon already have access to their own or leased property. The model of providing parcels of land to new farmers does not meet current local needs. Instead this year, we offered a season-long series of advanced business and production classes for a cohort of nine new farmers. Thrive has provided them with access to a new on-line market, Rogue Valley Local Foods. In addition, funds received by Thrive are paying these new farmers to provide excess farm products to local food banks.

The ODA recently became interested in the farm incubator model and has directed funds toward OSU Extension to create such a program. Next spring, the Small Farms team in Southern Oregon will break ground at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center and develop a one-acre incubator farm. During its first year, the acre will be used to teach and demonstrate basic farming techniques and provide perspective farmers with opportunities to practice farming. While new farmers will not be incubating their own businesses during this first year, they will get a chance to learn important farming skills and work closely with the farm manager. Based on the successes and challenges of this first year as well as the availability of funding to continue the project, we may expand the acre and offer plots to individual farm businesses in future years.

OSU Extension Small Farms continues to find and create innovative models for training new farmers. Our approach has been to include more hands on experience and practical business and marketing support than traditional classroom-based education. We look forward to piloting a farm incubator program, and hope to create a model that can be replicated around the state in the future.