Borrowing from the best practices of two business models — the generational family farm and the business incubator — The Experience Farming Project in Carnation is growing more than just vegetables; it’s growing farmers.
Farmer may be the last of the inherited professions in America. No longer do you see blacksmiths, butchers, and other crafts passed down through the generations. Even today, fewer farmers are passing their farms down to the next generation; their children are leaving the family business to pursue jobs in the cities and elsewhere. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, most Americans are three generations removed from agriculture, and less than 2 percent of our population is involved in the growing of the food, fiber, shelter, and fuel in the country.
In recent years, there has been a surge in first-generation farmers. These new farmers are eager to learn how to develop a successful farm business. But many are struggling to procure land, and develop the experience that comes from years of living and working on a farm. They need to build a comprehensive library of skills, along with the historical knowledge of the land, of developing soil health, tracking weather, and more before they learn what will grow best.
Farming is evocative of verdant fields with baby lambs, fields of crops waving in the gentle breeze, and smiling farmers with armfuls of abundant vegetables. But in reality, it’s a lifestyle that doesn’t respect exhaustion levels. The weather is a constant unknown factor, and profit margins are razor-thin. In fact, more than half of our nation’s farmers have off-farm jobs, according to the 2012 USDA Census.
Launching a farm is a business that requires significant capital and upfront resources; land in King County is expensive, not to mention costly equipment for sowing, harvesting, and processing. Farming with livestock brings its own sets of challenges — feed is expensive, and the animals have natural predators. These sobering realities often stop potential farmers before they even get started.
That’s where the Experience Farming Project comes in. Led by the SnoValley Tilth and Sean Stratman of Dancing Crow Farm, seven farms coexist on a fertile piece of land known as Stuart’s Landing Farm in Carnation. The land, owned by SnoValley Tilth board member Claire Foster, has its own interesting farming provenance, as it’s where the train used to pick up the milk from Carnation Milk Farm and take it to the cannery in Monroe, where it was turned into condensed milk and shipped around the country. Stuart’s Landing lay fallow for decades before Foster offered up the land for SnoValley Tilth’s groundbreaking program.
At the Experience Farming Project, farmers — both beginning and veterans — pay a fee to lease a small plot of land, along with the use of community equipment, like a tiller and tractor. The experience comes from farming side-by-side with farmers who are diverse in their experiences and methodologies. They also have an on-hand mentor and expert farmer in Stratman, along with other experienced SnoValley-area farmers. But more than that, the project also allows the farmers to develop their business models and their customer base, and conduct a relatively risk-free trial run on being a farmer.
With support from the SnoValley Tilth and the Experience Farming Project, much of the risk is mitigated for these Eastside farmers. The blows from beginner mistakes are softened, and the diversity of farming practices and business models provides a rich experience for its participants. But the real beneficiaries are all of us, the consumers of this resilient local food system. Come meet the farmers of the Experience Farming Project.
Lettuce Love Farm
Lauren Tyner & Kevin Haggerty
These two starry-eyed young farmers make it look so easy. Both Kevin Haggerty and Lauren Tyner are currently working day jobs, and work on their farm in the evenings. You can catch them working quickly to weed the fields, harvest for market, and feed the chickens before the sun goes down. They have interned and apprenticed on a number of local farms, but this is their first year of farming on their own, and they are seeing plenty of success. Fortunately, they’re spotting their mistakes early, too, like planting way too much kale! You can find them at the Carnation and Duvall farmers markets with their micro greens; pastured chicken eggs; and yes, lots of kale. facebook.com/lettucelovefarm
Dino & Kenan Hadzic
While their children were wrenching cucumbers off the vines, munching into the sweet vegetables, and running between the rows with their laughter trailing behind, Dino and Kenan Hadzic, who are brothers, recall growing up in war-torn Bosnia. The war brought about a complete collapse of the food system in their country. The complicated web of food transportation and imports gave way to surviving on humanitarian aid staples like powdered milk and flour. The brothers remember their family, along with others, had to learn to grow its own food in order to eat. Patches of grass transformed into gardens as communities turned to self-reliance. Now, as war refugees and first-generation immigrants, they have settled on the Eastside, both married with three children each, and both in comfortable careers. But this year, the brothers, along with their wives, Anela and Mia, felt called to return to farming, to return that self-reliance of growing their own food. After their day jobs, you can find both families taking turns with entertaining the six children while also weeding; watering; and harvesting their salad greens, cucumbers, and tomatoes.
Ariana de Leña
Ariana de Leña is exploring the intersections of food and culture through her farm and the act of growing food. She is successfully merging vegetable farming with community organizing and cultural resilience education. She hosts workshops on and off the farm to educate the community about the ways that ecological resilience and cultural resilience mirror each other, and on the vibrancy of food cultures. She grows vegetables, flowers, and medicinal herbs, and makes them available through her small CSA subscription program. CSA share members have the opportunity to subscribe to the “Community Nourishment” option that helps to subsidize her workshops for local organizations. kamayanfarm.com
Mezza Luna Farms
This punk-rock farmer believes people should be well-traveled — not their food. Which is why he hopes he can continue to farm on the Eastside. Currently the senior farmer in the program, Ian Fels and his wife and farm partner, Victoria Roos, are on the constant lookout for the perfect small parcel in which to launch their farm outside of the Experience Farming Project. Small plots (3 to 10 acres) of affordable and fertile land are hard to come by in King County, and their search has been unsuccessful. In the meantime, he continues growing his farm; his customer base; and his famous purple vegetables for his CSA subscribers, local restaurants, and the Farms for Life program. mezzalunafarms.com
Dancing Crow Farm
Sean Stratman’s tagline, “A Dance, Not A Trudge,” personifies his work as a farmer and mentor. He works endlessly to find the balance in his work and passions, and with technology and nature. In addition to growing food, and managing his direct sales customers, he has ongoing personal seed-breeding projects (he’s currently developing a perennial kale). Stratman also prioritizes the needs of the farmers he mentors, and runs the test site for the exciting Microsoft “Farm Beats” project to enable data-driven farming. He’s equally comfortable coaching the new farmers on soil nutrients and having Skype conference calls from the fields with Microsoft’s executive team, giving interviews to BBC and then manning the table at the farmers market. For Stratman, it’s all part of the dance. dancingcrow.org
Sarah Cassidy and husband Luke Woodward are known throughout Puget Sound as the founding farmers of Oxbow Farm in Carnation. They ran Oxbow for 17 years and in that time developed and perfected farm-inspired summer camps for children. In fact, “Farmer Sarah” is quite famous with the 3- to 12-year-old set, and counts quite a few kids-at-heart in her fandom as well. Her magical summer camps are a kid’s daydream come true, complete with garden fairies, spotting frogs, tasting vegetables, sunflower showers, feeding sheep, gathering chicken eggs, telling stories, singing songs, and digging in the dirt. You also can find her fresh vegetables at the Stuart Landing Farmstand, Duvall’s Grange Restaurant, and the Snoqualmie Valley Farmers Cooperative CSA, and her flower bouquets are available on Saturdays in downtown Duvall.
“Farming the farmland closest to the Seattle area is important work, I believe. It is proof that a huge metropolis can feed itself. But of course, this location-perfect real estate is also dearly priced; no farmer I know that doesn’t start out with capital can afford to buy out here,” said Cassidy. hearth-farm.com