Nine years ago Octavio Garcia was a seasonal laborer, spending long days bent over another man’s field in California’s Central Valley, picking strawberries for $6.25 an hour. Today the 24-year-old is manager of his own 6.5 acres, growing strawberries, tomatoes, garlic, and other produce on land leased to him by ALBA, the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association in Salinas, Calif.
ALBA is one of a growing number of “incubator farms” across the United States dedicated to training the next generation of farmers. According to NIFTI, the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative at Tufts University, there are currently 111 new or planned incubator projects in 38 states—up from 45 projects at the start of 2012. More than half the 5,700 aspiring farmers they serve are refugees and immigrants who will help fill an important demographic gap as current farmers age out of the profession. The average farmer, according to USDA Census of Agriculture statistics, is now over 57 years old.
Originally from Michoacán, Mexico, Garcia heard about ALBA from a fellow migrant worker. He went to an introductory talk and decided to take the five-year training. “My earnings are not huge,” he says, “because I am still investing most of what I make back into the farm. But they are more than $6.25 an hour. And what I really like is being my own boss, the freedom to do what I want when I want.” Garcia looks forward to buying his own land with help from California FarmLink, a nonprofit organization that offers loans and matching funds to beginning farmers.
Chris Brown, executive director of ALBA, believes the program is a good model for ending poverty among seasonal farmworkers. For farmworkers, he says, “It’s very difficult to break out of poverty. We’re trying to help them pursue their own business.”
Though learning new regulations and marketing techniques can be challenging, ALBA’s beginning farmers often bring solid agricultural experience and entrepreneurial skills to the program, he says. Their hard work, plus growing consumer interest in buying organic, has helped ALBA’s annual produce sales go from $500,000 in 2008 to $5 million in 2014.
“This is money that’s going back into the pockets of farmers,” Brown says.
ALBA, started in 2000 on land sold to the federal government’s anti-poverty program in the 1970s, is one of the oldest incubator farm programs in the country. Earnings from organic produce sold to Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Stanford University help build economic self-sufficiency for beginning farmers and fund 70 percent of ALBA’s operating budget. The rest comes from USDA and private grants.
Aspiring farmers pay sliding scale tuition to attend ALBA’s introductory course part-time while working other jobs. Graduates can go on to the Incubator Farm Program, which provides subsidies to lease land and equipment over a five-year period. Of the 200 people who have completed the introductory course, Brown says, 90 have entered the incubator farm program, and around 25 now lease their own land elsewhere. He hopes those numbers will double over the next few years.
At Viva Farms, an incubator in Washington state’s Skagit Valley, farm-to-community fellow Leigh Newman-Bell also sees the incubator model as a way out of poverty for seasonal migrant workers.
“It always shocks me that a high percentage of farm workers are also receiving SNAP benefits,” she says. “How is it that people who grow the food can’t afford it themselves?”
Seasonal farmworkers who take advantage of incubator farm training will also lead healthier lives, she adds. “Many of our farmers worked as migrant laborers on large conventional farms prior to starting our program, and they came here because they wanted to farm organically to avoid being exposed to harsh pesticides.”
Newman-Bell says the program is highly valued in the community. Though only 26 people have participated in Viva’s program so far, “If you were to include all the family members, volunteers, community members, and friends who come out to lend a hand, that number would easily be in the hundreds,” she says.
Mauricio Soto, 44, worked for more than 20 years on farms in California, Washington, and Mexico. He took Viva’s training and now works as its general manager, in addition to leasing a three-quarter acre farm from the organization.
“The classes that Viva offers are very interesting,” he says. “If you apply yourself, you can do well.”
“Working my farm,” he adds, “I feel happy and free.”