Farm Incubator Programs in Higher Education

May 11, 2017
By Alex Shih

This year CSANR sponsored registration for several WSU students to attend the Tilth Conference.  We have posted reflections written by the students over the past several months. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.

2016 was an historic year for the annual Tilth Conference; for the first time this region-wide event was organized by two well-known and respected organizations in Washington State – Seattle Tilth and Tilth Producers of Washington. The recent merger of these two organizations under the new name, Tilth Alliance, is a large step toward building greater awareness and adoption of sustainable agriculture practices in the future. Congratulations!

By the end of Tilth Conference weekend, a workshop that stood out to me was Farm Incubator Training Programs: Contributions to Sustainable Food Systems. The concept behind incubator programs is to nurture and raise the next generation of small-scale, sustainable farmers. A farm incubator program isn’t a novel idea but I must admit, the concept was new to me.  I had never heard of a program that combines business, education, and agriculture together prior to the Saturday of conference week. After listening to the presenters share stories and experiences of their incubator programs, I couldn’t help but to think whether university programs designed to nurture future small-scale, sustainable farmers could benefit from adopting some models from farm incubator programs (FIP).

One of the most intriguing aspects of FIP is the option to start a farm at a lowered entry fee. Prospective farmers that have gone through a FIP have the opportunity to start their farm operation in the program at a reduced cost for land and equipment, and benefit from a pre-established market channel to sell the products. In addition to the lowered entry fee, leasing costs are charged by season thus allowing participants the flexibility to enter, exit, and re-enter the program at their discretion without significant financial repercussions.  This support system, in my opinion, is the real advantage that FIPs have over university programs; it can be very effective at developing and retaining aspiring sustainable farmers for the future.

Imagine a landscape divided into an equal grid where a student manages each section; a sewn quilt of agricultural production with farmers openly sharing knowledge and practices, and teeming with diversity in crops and creativity from hopeful, young student-farmers. For land-grant institutions like Washington State University, it is exciting to see the prospect of incorporating more daring, bold educational methodologies to create the next generation of sustainable farmers.

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