June 20, 2008

Start-Up Farmers Working to Achieve Their Dreams

By Ross Courtney, Yakima Herald-Republic, Wash.

Jun. 20--A chest cold had crept up on him the night before as he finished the endless chores of his start-up farm. He didn't want to drive sick all the way to his house in Pasco.

All those chores -- disking soil, planting tomatoes and contending with irrigation pipes that seem to leak faster than he can patch them -- would be waiting for him the next day, cold or no cold. He may as well get an early start.

A new farm requires sacrifices he's willing to make now, hoping to someday turn his 92-acre plot of corn and vegetables into a ranch that supports his family of five.

"It's a big dream we have," says Sanchez, 41. "But it's a long way we have to walk."

Like the Sanchezes, people still start farming these days. That old-fashioned American dream still lives in the age of closures, corporate ranching and the global economy.

"More people are getting into farming," says Clayton Burrows of the Washington State University Small Farms Program.

Agricultural lenders have noticed increased interest, too, as more growers try to tap into niches such as community-supported farms, organic produce and farmers markets.

If it's true, it will mark a change in trend.

The 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture farm census figures aren't due out until next February. But previous five-year figures show a decrease in the percentage of state farmers who have spent less than two years on their current farm. In 2002, it was only 3.3 percent -- or 1,200 of 36,000 total -- a 15-year low.

Some of the new efforts are paying off.

"Some of these smaller producers are finding a niche market that's providing them with a livelihood," said Wendy Knopp, assistant vice president of AgVision, a lending program for start-up farmers at Northwest Farm Credit Services.

New farm families are driven by a "passion" for farming, Knopp says. They often grew up on a farm as children and want it back.

"It's that lifestyle they're looking for," Knopp says.

But romantic visions are not enough. Banks require detailed business plans that address short-term and long-term cash flow.

Programs abound to help. Knopp's firm has several.

The Sanchezes took advantage of one, called the beginning farmer and rancher program, backed by the state Housing Finance Commission. As the fourth client to sign up, they received a $250,000 loan, at an interest rate about half of market value, backed by tax-free state bonds.

It's open to new farmers purchasing at least -- in Yakima County -- 9 acres.

"This is just for serious farmers," said Reidun Crowley, a spokeswoman for the commission.

Meanwhile, Washington state's Small Farms Program offers classes called "Cultivating Success." Through county extension agencies, students get a mix of academic and hands-on education that includes apprenticeships under farming mentors. When finished, they qualify for low-interest loans from participating banks.

Start-up farmers have struggles, of course, as the Sanchezes do. They must contend with rising costs in fuel, fertilizer and land as urban areas sprawl into the countryside and farmers compete with developers for the same parcels.

"The trophy home will win out every time," says Burrows, who owns a Bellingham farm.

However, new guys have a few advantages, he says.

New farmers today can boast locally grown produce, a niche that in some respects is replacing organic as a consumer trend. Farmers markets are growing exponentially, while even commercial producers are looking for local marketing outlets, Burrows says. Meanwhile, the state just passed "Local Farms, Healthy Kids," legislation that makes it easier for schools to purchase Washington-grown farm products.

Jorge Sanchez and his wife, Avigail. plan to capitalize on the local niche. They have 82 acres of silage corn under contract for a Sunnyside area dairy and plan to market their 6 acres of organic vegetables and melons to local grocers.

The Sanchezes and their three children, ages 12, 9 and 4 months, live in Pasco. Both have day jobs. Jorge works in construction for Bechtel in Richland, Avigail in procurement for the Army's Umatilla Chemical Depot in Oregon.

They spend anywhere from 20 to 40 hours a week during evenings and weekends at their Grandview fields, which they purchased in April.

Eventually, they envision cattle and wine grapes on the spread, as well as their family home. So far, only a half-built greenhouse and a Porta-Potty stand on the ground.

They also hope to quit current their jobs, perhaps within three or four years.

Jorge has farming in his blood; Avigail does not.

Jorge was born in Salinas, Calif., but grew up with his mother on a farm in Sinaloa, Mexico.

He came within a year of an engineering degree and has worked most of his adult life in construction, but stories from Benton City in-laws about vine-covered hills and green cattle pastures lured him to Eastern Washington.

"This is his dream," Avigail says with a smile.

But the excitement rubs off on Avigail, too, as she watches the corn pop up.

"It's really a challenge," she says. "But it's something beautiful."

--Ross Courtney can be reached at 930-8798 or [email protected]

--Washington farmers who have spent two years or less on their farms, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture's five-year censuses.

1987: 1,891; 33,559 (total); 5.4 percent

1992: 1,515; 30,264; 5 percent

1997: 1,319; 29,011; 4.5 percent

2002: 1,201; 35,939; 3.3 percent

--For more information on the Washington State Housing Finance Commission's Beginning Farmer/Rancher Program go to: www.wshfc.org/FarmRanch/index.htm


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