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Incubator program helps farmers get off the ground

Headwaters Farm leases land and more

Headwaters Farm, which leases land to experienced farmers trying to get a business started, may be one of a kind, says farm incubator manager Rowan Steele, and it's just getting started.

The farm is a project of the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District, which bought 60 acres on Orient Drive near 282nd Avenue in 2011. The land was originally a tree farm, Steele said, so the district cleared and tilled the land, put up a barn and greenhouse and rents out acreage, equipment and services to people trying to get their farm businesses off the ground.

Now entering its third year, the farm has 11 farmers leasing varying amounts of acreage as part of a four-year program that eventually will lead each farmer to secure his or her own land to continue the farm operation.

Photo Credit: OUTLOOK PHOTO: TROY WAYRYNEN - Rowan Steele, farm incubator manager at Headwaters Farm on Orient Drive, checks on seed germination on 14 acres planted with winter rye and common vetch.“It's a four-year program, and we don't want to fill it up all at once,” Steele said. “We want to bring in four or five farmers per year and then pass them on to their own farm, and we will help them get the land.”

One way is by pairing novice farmers with experienced farmers who may be nearing retirement through the Friends of Family Farmers program, based in Mollala, he said.

“The average age of farmers in Oregon is 60 years or older, two years older than the national average,” Steele said. “We find people who are retiring and find beginner farmers and make a match.”

The district also looks for opportunities for conservation easements to encourage farming to continue on family-owned farms.

Photo Credit: OUTLOOK PHOTO: TROY WAYRYNEN - At Headwaters Farms, an incubator program for beginning farmers run by the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District, Rowan Steele helps teach farming and sustainable farming practices.But that's the last step in the four-year process, which starts with applying to be in the program. Starting Oct. 1, for the spring growing season, the farm will take new applications on its website at emswcd.org/farm-incubator/headwaters-farm.

Potential farmers should have some farming experience, Steele said, and they must submit a resume and business plan to be considered.

“We are not seeking people who have never farmed before, and we want some experience,” he said.

Farmers who lease land at Headwaters Farm pay a reasonable price and also have a wealth of infrastructure to use, such as a greenhouse where Steele has constructed a warming table for seedlings that involves hot water flowing through a bed of sand, a germination shed that is “a greenhouse within a greenhouse,” a hoop house where crops grow directly in the ground, a large barn with washing stations and a walk-in cooler, and lots of free advice.

Most summer crops have been harvested, and each farmer has his or her own business name and specialty. One field, planted by Emily Cooper for Full Cellar Farms, grows plants for preserving, including onions, tomatoes and peppers, that are packaged together and sold in bulk direct to consumers, he said. Another field is leased to Mike Daugherty of Stock Pot Farms and specializes in different greens, including spicy arugula.

Photo Credit: OUTLOOK PHOTO: TROY WAYRYNEN - Rowan Steele, farm incubator manager for Headwaters Farm, inspects dry beans recently harvested by an incubator farmer.“Greens get tastier in the winter because the sugars change after the first frost,” Steele said.

Angela LeVan of Alquimia Botanicals has one of the smaller fields, using only one-quarter acre, which meets her needs, he said.

“She sells herbs to stores and farmers' markets and doesn't need a lot of room because it's value-added,” he said. “She processes it first.”

Headwaters Farm puts a strong emphasis on conservation agriculture, said Alex Woolery, spokesman for the conservation district.

“We strive to not only support the agricultural landscape, but also to demonstrate how farmers can both protect the natural resources around them and benefit farm productivity,” he said.

The district has set a good example by restoring the 60 acres by removing invasive species and planting native trees such as willows and cedars as part of a stream care program on 15 acres of the land that includes the north fork of Johnson Creek.

“Good fields and good natural resources are not contradictory, and you can have both,” Steele said.

Only one-third of available land at Headwaters Farm is being tilled at present, but new land will be planted as time goes on. In the meantime, fallow fields are planted with crops including common vetch and winter rye, cover crops to reduce erosion, add organic matter and fix nitrogen in the soil, he said.

Photo Credit: OUTLOOK PHOTO: TROY WAYRYNEN - Roma tomatoes are among many different crops grown by incubator farmers at Headwaters Farm, a program of the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District.The farm also has an irrigation system whereby farmers can use a drip system and variable flow for their crops.

“They can buy into the drip system and get the water for free,” Steele said.

The conservation district took on the incubator farm because it fits in with its mission, which had its beginnings after the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression, Steele said.

The mission of the conservation district is “to conserve and restore the natural resources of the district for current and future generations by making conservation technical, financial and educational assistance available and meaningful to all residents and ensuring equitable distribution of benefits and responsibilities,” according to its website.

Headwaters Farm is helping fulfill that mission and will be recognized as a trend setter when the National Farm Incubation Training Initiative meets at the farm Friday, Oct. 3.

“We hope to become a national model for the interface between healthy natural resources and vibrant agriculture,” Steele said.

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