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The Language of Farming: Seattle Tilth's Farm Incubator

By Tara Austen Weaver
Edible Seattle

Read Tara Austen Weaver's article about Seattle Tilth's farm incubator program.


As dawn breaks over fields on a hillside in Auburn one August morning, crops are being harvested. Kale, chard, and zucchini, gathered by farmers from the plots they tend, are washed, packed, and sent to market—but these are no ordinary farmers.  They are participants in a unique hands-on educational program. These fields are their classroom, the crops their coursework.

What is now known as Seattle Tilth’s Farm Works program began in 2009 with a group of Burundian and Somali Bantu refugees who had been farmers in their home countries. The aid programs they were enrolled in as new immigrants sought to retrain them with different job skills, but the desire to grow food was still there. We know how to farm, they said, can you help us find land? The organization sponsoring the program—Burst for Prosperity—located ten acres near Kent and the first seeds were planted.

“They had previous farming experience,” says Eddie Hill, Program Manager of Farm Works, “but they were growing mangoes, citrus, sweet potatoes—heat crops. They didn’t know this climate and they had no understanding of the market.” Burst for Prosperity partnered with Seattle Tilth, and eventually transferred the program to them. This led to the farm incubator program, which is now located in the hills of Auburn.

The cycle begins in the fall with open applications. Though the program started with recent immigrants, it’s now open to any low-income participant with the desire to learn the farming business. A group of about fifteen are selected, with the first six months devoted to studying. “We teach them how to figure out crop availability, pricing, how to bring in a crop, how to pack it,” explains Becca Fong, Seattle Tilth’s Food and Farms Program Director. There are classes in business planning, invoicing and tracking, organic growing methods, soil enrichment, and the realities of growing in the short northwestern season.

Setting up a curriculum that works for all participants has been challenging. Other farm incubator programs, like the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association in California’s Salinas Valley, work with one language and culture while the Tilth group has a variety of languages, and English skills that may be limited. “Our curriculum has to be highly visual, hands-on, practical and repetitive,” says Hill.

“Literacy is a big stumbling block,” explains Micah Anderson, on-site Education Manager of the program. “Record-keeping, licenses, insurance—there are some fundamental things that have to happen. They can do the farm work, it’s the other part that is hard.”

“The ability to use a computer and build a spreadsheet—that is not something most of our participants are used to,” says Hill. And yet, in order to progress in the program each participant must design their own farm plan, which is then presented to the program coordinators. Once approved, participants are assigned a quarter-acre plot for the growing season.

After the initial year of farming on private property in Kent, the program moved to Red Barn Ranch in the Auburn foothills, a piece of property owned by Seattle Parks and Recreation. Through a series of work parties, with help from volunteers, the land was cleared of rocks, greenhouses erected, an irrigation system established, and a wash and pack station built for produce. “We basically built a farm in sixty days,” says Seattle Tilth’s Executive Director Andrea Dwyer.

The site lease extends to 2013, then goes month to month. Considering the amount of infrastructure required for a farm it’s not an ideal situation, but the property may be put up for sale, so a long-term lease is not possible. “The future of the program is dependent on us finding additional land,” says Dwyer, who would like to be able to provide farmers who want to continue in the program with room to expand.

Farm plots are available to participants at a subsidized rate, as is access to greenhouse space, farming equipment, water, and guidance from on-site staff and interns. But growing food is arguably the easiest part of the program. Once grown, the producers need to sell their goods.

“After the first year we realized how important it is to be able to connect with markets,” explains Dwyer. This was something that took the participants by surprise. They were used to customers coming to the farm to buy produce, as they had in their home countries. They weren’t accustomed to seeking sales outlets.

This is the other side of the curriculum: teaching participants to interact with customers, handle money, keep records. Part of the training covers financial literacy and business planning: working with a local credit union to learn to manage accounts, visiting restaurants and grocery stores, meeting with chefs and produce managers, learning what they need to know to bring their crops to market.

“The way you plan for farmers market or a CSA is entirely different from how you plan for commercial accounts,” says Fong. Some participants are eager to sell directly to consumers, others may not yet be up to that challenge. For them Seattle Tilth’s Urban Food Hub functions as a wholesaler, selling their crops to outlets such as Central Co-op (formerly Madison Market), PCC, Magic Bean CSA, and restaurants like Island Soul and Rhododendron. Producers sell direct at the Virginia Mason midday Friday farmers market, Pike Place Market’s Wednesday farmers market, and through a self-service farm stand on the Auburn site.

The farmers markets, particularly, allow participants to gain confidence in working with customers. “They’ll help each other out in public,” says Anderson, “meeting people and talking about their farm. Last year they were sort of shy, this year they’re a lot more confident.”

Last fall the Farm Works program received a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These funds are part of the 2008 Farm Bill, made available through the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which offers education, training, and mentoring to those starting out. “This is one of the creative ways the USDA has of reforming our food system and supporting local agriculture,” says Dwyer.

Now completing its third year, the program is still evolving. If the participants continue past the initial year, their subsidies decrease and they become more independent. Some former participants are now helping run a berry farm, thanks to a connection through Seattle Tilth. “Ideally we’d like to see people move on to other farms in the area,” says Fong. “We want to help them integrate with the local food system.”

Though ostensibly a farming program, the larger goals of Farm Works go beyond that. “It’s a much longer road to business empowerment,” explains Hill, who hopes to create a leadership core so participants can help train each other and interact with their communities as well. Some farmers have expressed interest in raising goats, and one is experimenting with growing teff, a grain used in Ethiopian cuisine. With the background and skills they are learning, there may be new markets to tap.

“Historically, the farmers in this country have been the recent immigrants,” Hill points out. Today regulations, paperwork and access to land and markets make farming harder than ever before. But some basics remain: the chance to plant each spring, till soil, produce food, build a life for yourself and your family. On an Auburn hillside, farmers from around the world are getting some help to do just that.

Tara Austen Weaver writes about food and farming, travel and culture. She is author of
The Butcher & The Vegetarian: One Woman’s Romp Through a World of Men, Meat, and Moral Crisis, and writes the award-winning blog Tea & Cookies.

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