Farmer Incubation: Successful Case StudiesCatherine Webb
The United States and global foodscape looks increasingly vulnerable due to a rapidly aging farmer population, a polluting industrial agriculture model, and a loss of place-based agricultural knowledge. As a result, food security and climate change mitigation are some of the most considerable challenges facing the next generation. The case studies in this post share how farmer incubation can help.
New and Young Farmers
Research shows that younger and less experienced farmers are more likely to adopt innovative technologies and implement environmentally sustainable land management practices. The next generation is ready to change the current agricultural scene for a better future. However, many challenges are facing new farmers. These barriers include access to markets, land, capital, and practical training.
Farmer incubation programs have emerged as a solution to initial barriers. These programs offer temporary and affordable access to land, infrastructure, and training to empower individuals to launch successful and sustainable farm businesses. Investors can mitigate some of the challenges facing expansion:
- Lack of funding: deploy capital to bolster technology, education, staff development, services
- Language barriers: support ability to provide bilingual programming for greatest impact
- Crop diversity: increasing allows farmers to improve profitability and enter niche markets
- Accessing new markets: opportunities and information to access burgeoning markets, for example, food as natural medicine
Farmer incubation programs are relatively new and will play a critical role in creating a more robust food network and agricultural community of practice, or a group of people who share challenges and work to achieve common goals.
The following case studies survey three successful models to get farmers off the ground, including a nonprofit and farmers’ co-op, a government agency, and a nonprofit.
Nonprofit and Farmers’ Co-op: The Farley Center Farm Incubator, WI
This project grew out of the region’s preexisting organic farming structures and the need for social justice in supporting new farmers. The Farley Center Farm Incubator focuses on immigrants and socially disadvantaged farmers, especially Hmong and Latino immigrants. There is no limit to the amount of time a participant can farm on the incubator site.
The incubators sell their produce at farmers markets, grocery stores, restaurants, schools, and through two Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. CSAs are a system where members buy a share of farm production before each growing season and share risk with farmers to receive seasonal food. The Spring Rose Growers’ Cooperative manages one CSA, and the other is managed by the farm incubator. Due to the region’s farmers market saturation, the Farley Center created new markets to reach more customers. For example, incubator farmers and staff started farm stands at a Madison WIC clinic and a VA hospital.
Government Agency (special purpose district): Headwaters Farm Incubator Program, OR
This project was created in 2013 as a response to the aging regional farmer population, where the average age is 58 years old. The program seeks beginning farmers with agricultural experience but lack resources. New farmers can rent land for up to four years, and the cost of rent increases each year until comparable with market-rate rent.
There is no limit on incubator plot size on conditions that the farmer has a feasible business plan for the land. Participants also have access to equipment and infrastructure at a reduced cost. The Headwaters Incubator Program does not currently provide access to markets for participants and requires that incubator farmers find outlets to sell their farm products. The incubator farmers have been selling at farmers markets and restaurants.
The project is located on 187 acres and is open to all beginning farmers, but tries to recruit farmers interested in farming in the York County area. There is a 3-5 year limit on participation in the Horn Farm Center Incubator Farms Project. Farmers at the Horn Farm Center Incubator Farms Project generally find their own markets.
All of the incubator farmers participate in the Horn Farm Center’s on-site farm stand. Three of the four farmers growing on site run individual CSA programs. The CSAs are of varying sizes – some are small (5-6 shares), and some are medium-sized (25-40 shares). Some farmers sell at farmers markets, and some sell to restaurants.
Many different farmer incubators and food distribution models are necessary to localize the food system and ensure farmer prosperity. Out of the three case studies, The Farley Center Farm Incubator has the most potential for long-term change because it introduces new farmers to the cooperative model. The cooperative model can combine multiple small farming enterprises to compete in larger markets. Ultimately, impact investors must support farmer incubation programs that improve entry to collectives to affect environmental, social, or economic goals.