A physicist from Armenia, a juice-maker from Bermuda and a Burmese sushi chef are crafting new careers in agriculture under a program that applies the business incubator model to farming.
The Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farming is one of dozens of incubator farms springing up around the country to nurture the next generation of agricultural entrepreneurs. The projects help would-be farmers get started by providing a plot of land, shared equipment, mentoring on business planning and marketing, and the opportunity to build a track record of success that will help them qualify for startup loans when they're ready to launch their own farms.
"It's giving me an opportunity to implement business ideas that I hadn't had a chance to before," said Damon Brangman, 43, an immigrant from Bermuda who wants to grow his own vegetables for the mobile juice business he runs with his wife in Ithaca. "I'm looking to buy or lease land, but there's more risk and cost involved. This was more within my reach."
The 10-acre farm in Ithaca, in New York's Finger Lakes region 140 miles west of Albany, is now in its second growing season with Brangman and two other farmers tilling quarter-acre plots that they can use for three years. Surik Mehrabyan, 54, came to upstate New York with a contract for physics research at Cornell University, but after it ended, he wanted to return to the agrarian lifestyle he grew up with in Armenia.
"My goal is to understand what to grow to make a living," Mehrabyan said as he spaded stony soil to build a raised bed in his plot at Groundswell. "All the time, I'm doing different experiments and finding markets, planning. For me, it's most important to get established with buyers before I invest in land."
Ye Myint, 47, a native of Myanmar, is growing sushi cucumbers and greens such as gongura and water spinach, which are popular in Asian communities. "I have a deal with a Burmese grocery store in Syracuse to buy gongura," said Myint, who makes sushi for the Cornell University food service.
There are about 105 incubator farms in 38 states, many of them still in the planning stage or just a few years into operation, according to the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative at Tufts University in Massachusetts. The program, launched in 2012, advises new incubator farms and helps farmers connect with them.
More than half the farms serve immigrants and refugees, but others nurture a range of new farmers including young people, career changers and retirees.
In 2008, new grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program spurred a number of incubator programs into existence. The USDA program was a response to the rising average age of U.S. farmers and the 8 percent projected decrease in the number of farmers from 2008 to 2018. The 2014 farm bill includes $100 million for the program.
"The barriers to getting into this industry are so large that we have to come up with new strategies to get people on the land," said Jennifer Hashley, project director of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, parent organization of the Incubator Training Initiative.
A network of mentor farmers is key to the success of the incubator farm, said Joanna Green, director of the Groundswell Center. "The farmers we work with are really interested in helping the next wave get started and succeed," Green said. Groundswell's oversight team also includes advisers from Cornell's horticulture department and farm credit organizations.
The New Entry incubator program requires farmers to pay startup costs including a $175 fee for a quarter-acre plot, plus the cost of their seeds, nursery pots and other supplies. Farmers must take a farm business planning course and write a plan that will be refined at the end of the growing season. In the first year, some earn only enough to recoup startup costs, while others may earn as much as $10,000.
"It depends on what they grow, how much time they put into it and what their market is," Hashley said.