Grateful Food Farms

Valerie Rose, Member Spotlight, May 2012

Tilth Producers of Washington May 2012 Member of the Month

Valerie Rose spent her childhood on a 150-acre commodity crop farm in Northeast Illinois. She left for college, and followed up with 12 years in public broadcasting and 12 years in research and health at the University of Washington. Just before Seattle Tilth’s Rainier Beach Urban Farm came to her South Seattle neighborhood in 2010, Valerie moved to Mount Vernon. There she became a Master Gardener and wrote a gardening column for the Skagit Valley Herald. Valerie recently started an exciting new endeavor—leasing one acre of land at Viva Farms, an incubator farm in Whatcom County. On her own Grateful Food Farms, Valerie currently grows snow peas, collard starts and garlic, with high hopes for a hot summer yield of melons, sweet corn and pole beans.

Why did you start farming now?
I did just start farming in my fifties, but I have been growing vegetables most of my adult life—except for a few short land-deprived periods when I was an apartment dweller. I always try to grow some of my own food. I directed the Skagit Valley Festival of Family Farms for two years and am a certified Master Gardener.

What is an incubator farm? Why did you choose to go that route?
I discovered Viva Farms through the extension service where I trained to be a Master Gardener. I signed up for a Cultivating Success Program offered by WSU and Viva Farms. The Viva classes were so valuable, and so overwhelming! Our class would hear from farmers and buyers that have been working for years. It was a reality check; I scrapped a lot of ideas. But it was better to talk to people with experience rather than till the land and not have it work out. I learned about permits for selling broiler chickens and about growing and selling berries. Ten weeks of cultivation and business courses saved thousands of dollars!

The Cultivating Success instructors realized that many of the program’s graduates couldn’t find land to lease, and didn’t have money to invest in farm equipment. Sarita Schaffer, Viva’s founder, had a radical vision—grow new farmers. In addition to training new farmers, the non-profit organization also teaches experienced farm workers to grow their own farm businesses. While these Spanish-speaking folks are very experienced growers, Viva teaches these farm entrepreneurs business and marketing skills, as well as organic cultivation methods. It is hugely successful. I have been learning Spanish in the winter and using it over the summer. While I was struggling to keep the weeds down and to pick peas, Spanish-speaking farmers were harvesting boxes upon boxes of lettuce and melons. I found it profoundly inspiring.

We have lots of Oaxacan immigrants in our area, so Spanish is not even their first language. I believe Seattle Tilth is working with Somali farmers, and there is a similar group in Vancouver, BC with Punjabi immigrants. They all come with their own farming traditions we can learn from. They have wonderful, unique crops and techniques. I hope this is just the beginning of a growing incubator movement.

What are your greatest struggles as a farmer?
It is impossible to find this quantity of land. Finding a half acre would not be possible without Viva Farms.

I am currently taking a tractor equipment and safety class. Viva has a new-to-us tractor and we are learning how to use it. There are some Skagit County kids in the class that can’t even drive yet, but are excellent on the tractor. They are so kind to the older people that are just learning. I could drive a tractor before I could drive a car too, but it was more for gardening, not farming.

I don’t have the personnel like some of the other farmers do. I have one friend who sometimes comes out and helps. The younger couples in their 20s and 30s have more energy. Their city friends find novelty in coming out to work the farm. Collaboration is great though, and much more fun. I am grateful to be connecting with small acreage farmers in the area who will lease out an acre here or there. After my seven years at Viva Farms are up, I plan on renting a cabin to younger friends, or bartering with someone—lodgings for farm work. I do love doing this hard physical work, whatever the weather.

How about successes?
Last year I had much success developing markets for my crops; high-end restaurants, informal distribution networks and United General Hospital. The hospital’s chef Chris Johnson is very supportive of buying locally grown produce for their Farm Fresh Friday. They have a great relationship with Hedlin farms and the Hedlin CSA. The hospital’s chef has upgraded the quality of the food which should really benefit the healing environment.
I had a huge crop of turnips and leafy greens like spinach, Swiss chard and collard greens. I found out there is a turnip market! I discovered just how many people I am connected to that are British, and turnips are a comfort food for them.

At the end of the growing season I found clients on Whidbey Island who run Sho Nuff Foods, which is a mobile catering company. They specialize in southern cooking and loved my organic collard greens.

The Viva market stand started last year and my beets did well. The stand didn’t open until mid-July, so this year it should do even better. This year, many Viva farmers are growing specific crops for the Viva CSA. I will be growing turnips and cucumbers for the CSA and farm stand. I’ll be growing a few other custom crops for restaurants. I discovered that this area is great for beautiful greens, while other crops are out of range. I will be thrilled if I can get a decent sweet corn crop.

What do you do for soil maintenance?
Cover crops are not just for winter! I learned that I don’t have enough cover crop, so I am going to start intercropping. It should help with weed suppression and add nitrogen and organic matter to the soil. I will be planting a lot of pollinator pathways and flower islands to nurture beneficial insects. Crop rotation is essential, as is living with voles and not exterminating them.

Viva Farms is in its third year of transition to organic certification. We are bringing back 30 plus acres back to health after being treated harshly as a fumigated potato crop field.

What advice would you give to new farmers in your area?
Meet and collaborate with young and established farmers in any way that you can. We benefit so much from working together. We are so lucky to have Tilth Producers of Washington as a vehicle to connect people.

Why are you a member of Tilth Producers?
I learned so much from Seattle Tilth, and it was always such a positive presence in my life. Moving up to the Skagit Valley, getting to know the farmers there, getting to know organic farmers, I learned about Tilth Producers of Washington. The collaboration, the cooperation and community building is inspiring and at the heart of food re-localization.

For more information about Viva Farms check out their website

Grateful Food Farms
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“We grow your food with Gratitude”

Tags: Collaboration, Cover Crops, Incubator Farm, Spanish, Viva Farms