On a foggy morning in the Skagit Valley, notepad in hand, Santiago Lozano walks through a farm estate auction inspecting used equipment. Side by side with Chris Elder, manager of Viva Farms, Lozano quietly bids on a well-worn cultivator. He wins it, and as the herd of older farmers follow the auctioneer to the next apparatus for sale a friendly Latino farmer sidles up to Lozano. Rogelio Flores Santos a foreman on the processing line of the now defunct Jungquist Farm in Mount Vernon, Wash. was unsure what he will do or where he would go with the farm’s closure. “I would like to have a farm of my own but it’s hard.” he said. Learning the business and getting started can be overwhelming for fieldworkers and farmhands whose English isn’t quite perfect, and are stymied by poor credit.
Santos is just the kind of ambitious farmer the Viva Farms Incubator program is designed to help. Last years’ crowd favorite at the Social Innovation Fast Pitch, they have grown exponentially adding three new farmers to their program, and have expanded to 40 acres. All their farmers are making more sales and half of them have begun leasing land outside of Viva Farms establishing their own independent operations.
Exposure from SIFP has opened doors to more restaurants and CSA delivery program sales in Seattle for their produce, according to co-founder Ethan Schaffer, Director of Business and Organizational Development. To meet the increased demand they acquired a lease for a 7,000 s.f. warehouse from the Port of Skagit County to serve as a distribution center to better serve the Seattle markets.
This year they also launched a loan program with the North Coast Credit Union, called the Farmer Reserve Fund, which has helped two new farmers get established, one of whom is Santiago Lozano whose auction purchase will help him acquire much needed equipment parts.
Lozano Farms was the first recipient of the Farmer’s Reserve Fund. It has enabled Lozano to give up his day job and farm full time with his wife, Maria Lozano, whom he met while working on a big farm in California. Lozano started farming there when he was thirteen years old. This year he expanded his strawberry and raspberry farm to ten acres, and hired friends to help him. He has already repaid the entire loan, but uses it now as a line of credit. He sells produce through his own markets as well as within the Viva Farms CSA program. At Viva Farms farmers can rent equipment by the hour, but Lozano bought his own tractor about a year ago and is building a good set of equipment.
Lizette Flores from Pure Nelida Farms was the other recipient of the new loan program. She manages the farm stand at Viva Farms along with her brother, Danny Flores, who works there part-time. The farm stand has seen increased sales this year averaging 200 customers per day, and has extended their season to seven months. Flores who owns Pure Nelida Farms with her mother, Nelida Martinez, has used the loan to double their acreage to five acres. In addition to growing around 60 varieties of crops and managing the farm stand full time, she also teaches adults about nutrition through the WSU Extension Food Sense program.