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Skagit Valley's Viva Farms wants to create a strong and just local food system

It’s a cool but sunny morning as I meet Michael Frazier, executive director of Viva Farms, at the farmland deemed Viva 1, located on 33 acres in Skagit Valley. In the height of the growing season here at Viva, they are growing more than just fruit and vegetables. There are three main branches to what they grow — farmers, community and food. Frazier likes to think of it as “three legs on a stool,” creating a viable and sustainable business.

Growing Farmers

It all began in 2009. Viva Farms is a nonprofit (501-C) charitable organization that saw a need not only for sustainable, organic farming but also an economically viable business here in this rich and diverse land of western Washington. Their driving passion remains twofold: help local family farms earn a living and create access to healthy, nutritious food for everyone — no matter their socio-economic status. Frazier explained their hope is that “aspiring farmers will become part of the solution that nourishes our planet and ourselves for the next generations.” The current average age for farmers in the region is 58, with many of them looking to retire.

Operating two locations in Skagit County and one in King County, Viva Farms create a network for new farmers within their incubator program, helping them get their start and grow their business. As Frazier says, “They are lowering the barrier for beginning farmers to create opportunity for success.”

“Incubating at Viva has allowed me to start my own farm business at a scale I could manage and without huge investments in infrastructure or equipment," said Eliza Mae Atterberry, owner of Rain Shadow Farms. "I’m looking forward to growing beyond Viva property someday, but the support and community here will be missed."

Interested in farming? Wondering how the incubator program works?

Each farmer begins with a 1/4 acre of land, acquiring the skills to farm while being surrounded with support and knowledge from fellow farmers and everyone involved at Viva. There are a few essential areas in which this happens: access to farming equipment from tractors to irrigation systems, as well as assistance with infrastructure, marketing, and capital.

“For example, new farmers learning to apply for loans and grants are supported within the Viva team,” said Frazier. To date, Viva has educated over 1,000 farmers, with those numbers increasing each year. Many of the incubating farm businesses are Latino-owned and female-owned, like Atterberry’s. It is a bilingual program with over 150 Spanish-speaking participants. As their businesses grow, they have the option to expand their farms, eventually accessing up to 18 acres within Viva. The average farmer spends approximately five years at Viva before becoming independent, commercial farmers.

Growing Community

“There is no better way to grow community than investing in the people who make it up,” said Frazier as we pass by several farmers tending their crops.

Currently, Viva is implementing a USDA three-year grant to expand their farm-to-school programs by working with food distributors to increase the supply of locally grown and organic produce to school foodservice programs. Much of their outreach for these programs includes collaborating with local partners in the Skagit and Whatcom areas, including the WSU-extension and Whatcom Farm to School, building a larger net of community involvement. Their efforts foster a connection to the earth as well as to food base farming for the next generation.

Not a farmer yourself but wish to get involved? Great! Viva hosts a variety of ways to stay connected, including several events throughout the year. Love the Land: A Virtual Benefit Concert for Local Farms is the next big event coming up in September.

Viva is teaming up with Washington Farmland Trust to raise money in support of local and marginalized growers. This is the second annual benefit highlighting stories of the farmers themselves as well as musical performances by local artists. Last year saw Dave Matthews join the line-up, offering his support to this important cause. Check out the Viva website for up-to-date details.

Growing Food

“It’s all about feeding people,” Frazier says as we wind our way through ripening berries. “And we manage that through our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program and our wholesale sales, bringing our produce to a store near you.” Viva’s organic veggies can be found all around the greater Seattle area at Whole Foods, Central Co-Op, and Grand Central Baking Company, just to name a few. Their CSA program can be found on their website. They accept SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program) benefits as well as offer a sliding scale membership, truly making the price of quality produce accessible to everyone. No barriers.

"At Viva, we believe in growing a more sustainable, just, and resilient food system that works for all of us.” As Viva keeps growing and doing what they do best, farming, they will certainly achieve this vision.

Viva Farms is located at15366 Ovenell Road, Mount Vernon, WA. To inquire about their incubator program, community outreach or CSA, please refer to their website at VivaFarm.org.

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