Viva Farms and partners raise a new crop of farmers

By Tara Austen Weaver, guest contributor

Viva Farms
Photo by Tara Austen Weaver

 

On an early summer morning at Regino Farms, not far from the Skagit River, thick rows of feathery green carrot tops hint at buried treasure down below, while gently furred zucchini plants stretch floppy leaves in all directions, tiny buds just beginning to form. Plump red strawberries are ripening in the sun, their rows seeming to go on forever. Prickly artichokes tower nearby, gray-green foliage wild and spiky.  If you’re quiet enough, it feels like you could hear the plants grow.  If you know where to look, something deeper is at play.

The flourishing organic farm is all the work of one family—two generations now planted in sandy Skagit soil. It is also the work of organizations coming together to raise a new generation of farmers and business owners, greater resilience for our food chain and a more equitable future.

Generations deep

Regino Flores and his wife, Martina Gutierrez, came north from Oaxaca, Mexico, in 1986 to work in the strawberry fields of central California, before making their way to Washington in 1994, to harvest cucumbers and berries in the Skagit Valley. The family descends from the Mixtec indigenous people in their home town of Juxtlahuaca, about 250 miles southeast of Mexico City.

“Grampa showed my father how to work with Mexican beans and corn,” Regino’s son, Isai Flores, explains, translating for his father. The family’s agricultural heritage runs generations deep.

A chance radio show Regino Flores heard in 2009 brought him, ultimately, to this land. The show introduced him to Viva Farms—an incubator program just then starting up in Skagit Valley, to support and train a new crop of farmers. He became one of the first participants.

“We started from zero,” Isai said, “because we didn’t know much.”

While the couple had decades of experience at one level, years of farm work does not necessarily cover the knowledge needed to run a farm business. “Viva taught about marketing,” said Isai—“where to sell produce, what prices to mark—and business accounting. If you spend $1,000 on strawberry plants, how much are you going to sell that for? Can you make it profitable?”

Farmworkers understand hard work and long hours, but owning a farm involves other challenges, said Rob Smith, director of programs and operations for Viva Farms. “It’s not just hard work. You have to make efficiencies and learn how to scale up.”

“We started from zero,” Isai said, “because we didn’t know much.”

Viva helps teach aspiring farm owners to navigate that transition—through a training program, then ongoing support as they work to establish a viable business. In its current form, Viva’s Practicum in Sustainable Agriculture is an 8-month, bilingual (English-Spanish) hands-on program where participants go through an entire farming season together on a plot at Viva’s student farms, from crop planning and soil preparation and seed propagation to harvest and sales and tax preparation. Graduates can apply to participate in Viva’s incubator program operating their own independent farm business.

This is essentially the process Regino and Martina went through in their 13-year journey—now joined by three of their eight children.

One of the biggest challenges in growing a farm is access to land, which is increasingly expensive and sought after in the Skagit Valley. Through Viva Farms, the Flores-Gutierrez family has been able to rent acreage, starting with one acre of strawberries in 2010, adding two more acres over the next few years and expanding into green beans and zucchini. By 2015, they were up to five acres. “We added other crops,” Isai said, “lettuce, carrots, broccoli, tomatillos.” Today they farm 11 acres while looking for more.

Growing more (and for good)

With the expansion in crops, it is also necessary to expand distribution. In the early days, Regino sold strawberries to processors to be frozen or made into jam or other food products. Customers are reliable but pay a lower price point than fresh markets.

Viva also stepped in to help develop sales outlets. They run a CSA (community supported agriculture) program where participating farmers can contribute to a weekly produce box, and have standing accounts with restaurants, grocery stores, and other distributors.

“When we first started we didn’t have to look for customers—we could grow the produce and they [Viva] would sell it” Isai said. “So, we didn’t have to struggle.”

It was this access—to land, markets, and also the use of expensive farming equipment—that has helped Regino Farms expand.

“In the last four to five years, Regino has really increased the scale of what he is doing, especially with his kids involved in the business now,” said Rob Smith. “He’s diversifying his markets, becoming a much stronger and more resilient business.”

Regino Farms currently sells at five farmers markets—four in the Seattle area, as well as Bellingham—and  the Puget Sound Food Hub. This is their first year selling through Skagit Valley Food Co-op and Farmstand Local Foods, a conduit to Seattle restaurant customers. In recent years, Isai (21) has taken charge of sales, while twins Issac and Jacob (17) help with growing and sell at the Bellingham Farmers Market (the two oldest siblings are not involved in running the farm).

One of their newer outlets is a collaboration connecting farms with food banks. Through Growing for Good, a joint venture between PCC, Harvest Against Hunger, and the Neighborhood Farmers Market Association, Regino Farms sells produce directly to the Ballard Food Bank. With diversification, the Flores-Gutierrez family would like to expand further, with a goal of 30 acres. But in an area like Skagit, land is at a premium.

“There are farms here that go back generations,” said Smith. “That land never comes on the market—and it’s expensive. There are bigger corporate farms that are quick to snatch up any available land.” In recent years, Viva Farms has been building out their land access program, with a dedicated staff person working to help incubator farms make the jump to independence.

“There’s a big need to help support farmers get access to land and access to capital,” Smith said. “All the underlying structural barriers remain. And if we don’t help, who is going to grow our food?”

Would Regino and Martina have been able to make the leap without the sort of help Viva and the incubator program has provided? Isai said it would be hard. “Right now, we are looking for land and all the land is being taken up.”

And yet, there are sweet carrots in the spring, and rows of berries—which now decorate the logo of Regino Farms, a farm but also two generations working together.

“We talk about family farms, and this is a great example of a real family farm,” said Smith. “Everyone is playing a role and they are providing jobs and good quality food. It’s really the American dream, with a lot of hard work.”

Regino and Martina’s children know their parents are growing produce—beans and berries and fat green squash—but they are also growing a business, and a future that will far outlast them.

Of the farm that bears his father’s name, Isai says: “He is growing it for us.”

 

Support Viva Farms

Viva Farms, a nonprofit organization, operates 119 acres at three locations in Skagit County and one in King County, providing bilingual training in organic farming practices to aspiring farmers with limited means, along with access to land, infrastructure, equipment and more.

For more information on that program or to donate, see vivafarms.org.

Also in this issue

Letters to the Editor

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