Headwaters Incubator Program - Cultivating Farms and Future Stewards No Small Task

Launching a farm business is no small task.

Even skilled growers who embody the creative, rugged, jack-of-all-trades image must be able to apply sound business practices, establish and maintain robust farm networks, navigate complex financial systems, and demonstrate a variety of nontraditional abilities like social media savvy. Throw on top of that the thin profit margins, the challenges of a changing climate, competition from a global food system, and normal farm variability, and these barriers can pose a daunting labyrinth for even the most prepared beginning farmer.

Fortunately, there is a burgeoning movement to support new farmers through the early years of business establishment, helping them get to the point they can access standard agricultural resources like USDA financing and technical support. This movement is taking shape in different forms and with different organizations across the country. Oregon is on the forefront of this movement and is actively galvanizing support services to help skilled, motivated individuals realize their farming dreams.

The East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District’s (EMSWCD) Headwaters Incubator Program (HIP) is playing a critical role in beginning farmer establishment. As Oregon’s only advanced-level land-based farmer development program, HIP seeks to aid the generational transition in agriculture, protect farmland, and ensure that land is well-stewarded. What makes the Headwaters Incubator Program stand out is that it caters to individuals with significant farming experience who lack a direct path to farm business ownership. More often than not, this barrier is financial, yet many skilled farmers also have gaps in their agricultural education and lack strong farm networks. HIP addresses all these barriers.

To help ease the high capital burden for new farm businesses, HIP provides affordable access to farmland, equipment, and infrastructure. Incubator farmers can utilize these resources at Headwaters Farm for up to five years, after which they “graduate” onto their own site. As opportunities allow, HIP helps facilitate these transitions through partner organizations and EMSWCD’s Land Legacy Program.

Since incubator farmers enter HIP with different sets of skills and knowledge, the educational component of the program is tailored to each operation. EMSWCD staff work with first-year incubator farmers to create a Farm Development Plan which outlines production and sets business development goals and benchmarks for creating a thorough business plan.

With 14 farms currently participating in the farm incubator, there is built-in community and peer support. When an incubator farmer struggles with a pest issue, has production challenges, or a sourcing question they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Growers can often find answers from a fellow beginning farmer or program staff. This social component is the most often-overlooked element in establishing well-rounded farm businesses. It’s also the most valuable aspect of the farm incubator model.

2017 saw a major milestone for HIP, as it was the first year graduating a full cohort of incubator farmers! With the investments made in Headwaters Farm’s facilities, community and soil, the Headwaters Incubator Program is poised to indefinitely support the establishment of new farm businesses.

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