It takes a lot to get a farm business off the ground. Growing skills need to be honed to specific microclimates, markets must be explored and established, and there are business and legal structures to develop, budgets to put together, and weed and pest management strategies to define, to name just a few essentials. However, much of this can’t happen without sufficient capital to make the initial investments in land, equipment, and farm infrastructure.
Our goal with the Headwaters Incubator Program is to identify individuals with farm experience, but who lack the capital necessary to launch their own farm business. To do this, the District makes available tools, equipment, and infrastructure essential to successfully producing in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, these items are so critical that the majority of staff time and budget for Headwaters Incubator Program’s inaugural season was committed to developing these basic assets, including a barn, greenhouse, irrigation system, wash station, and walk in cooler.
Most farms use their barn for a host of tasks. The new barn at Headwaters will be no different. It will provide storage space, work space, and a home for the wash station and cooler. As a functional hub for the farm, it has been designed to accommodate the needs of a variety of farm operations, while maintaining efficiency and meeting other basic requirements, such as food safety. To this end, the wash station provides tubs and tables for washing vegetables. It also has space for packaging and weighing produce, with some room left open for future additions, like a root washer or other tools that will allow incubator farmers to work with greater efficiency.
The new irrigation system at Headwaters Farm allows farmers to run either overhead or drip irrigation. The agreement is that the District will provide water to each field, but farmers are responsible for getting that water from the riser (a PVC pipe coming out of the ground) to their crops. Because conservation agriculture is such a large focus of the program, water for farmers is free if they purchase and utilize their own drip irrigation system. So far, all farms have taken the District up on this offer and will now be able to take their systems with them when they transition onto their own land.
The specific style of greenhouse constructed at Headwaters is exclusively for propagation, not for growing plants in the ground. Farmers rent table-space within the greenhouse and also have access to a smaller, enclosed, temperature- and humidity-controlled environment called a “germination chamber.” This feature allows farmers to begin growing plants in early spring when the conditions outside aren’t suitable for crop production. When warm weather rolls around, farmers will transplant their healthy “starts” out into the field—getting a jump on the growing season.
By providing this equipment and infrastructure at affordable rates, we allow farmers to focus on other important farm business development goals during their four years in the Headwaters Incubator Program: developing a business plan, saving money, establishing markets, investing in farm resources, and refining production techniques. The objective with this program is to provide enough assistance that incubator farmers can stand on their own feet once they transition off onto their own land. It is challenging to launch a farm business, and if the Headwaters Incubator Program can lower a few of the common barriers to new farmers, then the program is playing an integral role in helping to keep local farmland in production, and ensuring that it remains well stewarded for decades to come.