Pablo Silva started working in the fields as soon as he arrived in the United States. He was 14, picking strawberries in California. Agriculture, he says, is in his blood.
Silva was born in the village of Santa Cruz Yucucani in Guerrero, Mexico, and spent a lot of time growing up at his grandmother’s house outside of town. She raised animals and grew corn and beans and, he says, in Spanish through a translator, “I always helped her.”
When his father in California called for his son to join him, they worked together in the strawberry fields for a couple years before moving to the Skagit Valley. Silva picked strawberries in western Washington for about 15 years before making a transition most pickers never achieve: from farmworker to farm owner and operator.
While Latino people make up 83 percent of all farmworkers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, they account for just 3 percent of farm owners. Language and other barriers keep many from making the move. Washington State University Food Systems’ Immigrants in Agriculture Program helps farmers like Silva write business and whole-farm plans, apply for grants and loans, explore value-added products, connect with markets and buyers, and more.
The Immigrants in Agriculture Program, jointly housed out of WSU Skagit County Extension and the School of the Environment, is just one way that WSU Food Systems helps Washington agriculture, particularly first-time and small farmers. Those farmers can take classes, tour farms, attend specialized farming conferences, and meet with and learn from successful farmers. The program also offers online farm finder tools that make it easier for consumers to connect with local food producers.
“The small farmers of Washington state are really the backbone of the local food community,” says Nicole Witham, statewide coordinator of Food Systems, a program of WSU Extension within the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences.
“If we don’t foster and support them and lift them up, they don’t thrive. They don’t become mid-sized farmers,” she says. “We need a pipeline for new and beginning farmers. They are the farmers we’re going to be relying on to provide us food within our local community.”
We’ll rely on them more than ever in the future. With the world population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that, to feed everyone, sustainable food production will have to increase by 70 percent. However, there is an across-the-board decline in the numbers of farms, farmers, and farmland, as well as an aging group of farmers, in the United States.
Although American farmers are historically White, male, and older, the faces of small farmers in Washington state are becoming more diverse. They include more women and people of color—particularly Latino—as well as young, military-veteran, and first-time farmers. Among their biggest challenges: coming up with capital and locating land.
Despite the hurdles, a new crop of Washington’s small farmers are finding their way to farming from varying backgrounds and employing different entry points into agriculture. They are farmworkers like Silva; Melony Edwards, a young Black woman who started in food service; and Jim Long, a first-time farmer after 30 years in the United States Air Force.
Silva Family Farms, Burlington and Oak Harbor
“Owning a business was completely new to me,” Silva says. “I had never owned a business before. I had always worked for someone else in agriculture. In a way, that’s easier. You work and, yes, it’s really hard work. But at the end of the day you can go home and you don’t have to think about the business.”
Now as an owner and operator, “you go home and you have to think about it—from planting all the way to sales.”
Silva is no stranger to long hours. As a longtime farmworker, he would often leave for work around 4:00 in the morning and return around 10:00 p.m. or midnight, depending on harvest and additional duties. “I couldn’t see my kids,” he says. “I would leave while they were sleeping, and I would come home when they were sleeping.”
Most days, it’s still like that, leaving around 5:30 in the morning before his children wake up. But now he works during the day for a smaller organic berry farm with stable hours and returns home from his own agricultural enterprise at night.
Silva and his wife, Maura, established Silva Family Farms in small steps with support from the Food Systems Immigrants in Agriculture Program. “In Mexico, I just finished third grade,” Silva says. “We lived so far from town. It was hard to get there, and the teacher was not there every day.”
He took English as a second language classes at Skagit Valley College, a tractor-driving class through WSU Skagit County Extension, and Cultivating Success, which offers an overview of production and marketing options for modern small farms. “I learned how to start a farm business, write a business plan, and think about your goal and your mission,” Silva says. “I also learned how to create your own policies and how to comply with government regulations.”
In 2016, his employer, Bow Hill Blueberries, rented a quarter of an acre of certified organic land to Silva so he could cultivate his own berries on his off hours. The following year, Silva expanded, renting an acre for organic strawberries at Viva Farms, a nonprofit farm business incubator and training program in King and Skagit Counties. Its mission is to empower aspiring and limited-resource farmers by providing bilingual training in holistic, organic farming practices as well as access to land, infrastructure, equipment, marketing, and capital. Since its founding in 2009, Viva Farms has trained more than 900 small farmers in sustainable organic farming.
Today, Silva cultivates three and a half acres of organic strawberries and raspberries at the farm incubator. He also grows organic blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries on four acres at his own farm in Gig Harbor, which offers U-pick on weekends. “It’s a lot,” he says. “My wife helps me a lot. That’s why I can do it. Otherwise I won’t make it.”
Silva met his wife picking berries. They were working at the same farm in Skagit Valley and discovered they came from the same village in Mexico. They’ve been married 15 years and have five children ranging in age from 3 to 15. The oldest, Pablo Jr., helps his parents on their farm.
The Silvas bought a blueberry farm in 2019 from friends on Whidbey Island, more than doubling their operation. With the training he pursued through Viva and WSU, “we were able to advance and expand quite a bit,” says Silva, who didn’t quit his day job once he became a business owner. He continues to work as a field manager at Bow Hill, where he’s worked for nearly 10 years. In fact, Bow Hill sells his blueberries. Silva’s berries can also be found at the Bayview Farmers Market in Langley, through the Puget Sound Food Hub, Food Co-op in Port Townsend, Skagit Valley Food Co-op, Chimacum Corner Farm Stand, and more.
“We hope to continue to build our business,” Silva says. “No one in our family before us has ever been a business owner. We want to show our kids they can start their own business. It’s not necessary that they have to go be farmers. But we want to show them how to start a business and teach them about that.”
And he encourages others who are thinking about starting a business to “go for it and start and try. With the support that’s available from places like WSU you can really move forward. So go for it.”
Ebony by Nature, Whidbey Island
Melony Edwards found her way to farming through food service. But she likes to joke her name might’ve had something to do with it, too. “Melon with a ‘y,’” she notes, adding the pull of the land was probably inside of her all along. She just didn’t know it.
“I recently learned that my ancestors, after they were emancipated from slavery, became sharecroppers in Tupelo, Mississippi,” Edwards explains. “I learned my paternal great-grandmother followed her siblings to Detroit for a better life.”
Some six million Blacks left the rural South for the urban West, Midwest, and Northeast to look for jobs, often as industrial laborers. The Great Migration lasted from 1916 to 1970. Now, Edwards says, “I want to acknowledge my ancestors and their struggle and the land.”
Since going through WSU’s Cultivating Success program, Edwards has become not only a farmer but an advocate and activist, sharing her story to encourage other aspiring farmers, particularly young people of color and especially women. It’s part of her mission of changing the narrative around people of color joining the farming community, specifically in rural areas.
“I’m young and Black, and I’m a woman. There’s not a lot of farmers like me in Washington, especially in rural farming,” Edwards says. “You see it in the urban landscape. Seattle has a lot of urban farms run by people of color, but not in rural farming.”
Her LinkedIn and Instagram accounts describe her as a “Melanated Woman Farmer.” On social media, she uses the hashtags #PNWMelanatedFarmer, #ReClaimingFarmingOnMyOwnTerms, and #TheUnbearableWhitenessOfFarmingPNW.
In Washington state, there are fewer than 200 Black-only or mixed-race Black farmers. Not quite 70 are women. And about 40 are new or beginning farmers, with fewer than 10 years of experience. “There’s definitely a growing network,” Edwards says. “We’re starting to get more visibility.”
Blacks historically played a significant role in American agriculture, enslaved for centuries, followed by sharecropping and tenant farming. Racist violence against Black farm owners in the South and decades-long, well-documented discrimination against Black farmers by the USDA—which excluded Blacks from farm loans and assistance— contributed to their decline. In fact, the number of Black farmers fell so drastically that, in 1982, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission predicted there would be none left by 2000.
In the Pacific Northwest, systematic disenfranchisement of Black farmers predates statehood. Exclusion laws prevented Blacks from settling in what was formerly known as Oregon Country and, later, the Oregon Territory, including present-day Washington. “Today’s current lack of land ownership for African American farmers in the PNW is a direct result of those laws,” Edwards writes in Sound Consumer, a publication of the Seattle area’s PCC Community Markets. “The majority of Black farmers in the PNW are leasing land with the hopes of owning it one day. But the limiting factors, such as increasing cost of land and lack of land-purchasing knowledge within the Black community, add steep barriers to an already disadvantaged field. … With land ownership we could reclaim our ancestral skills and re-associate farming with power versus slavery.”
A century ago, there were nearly a million Black farmers in America. Today, there’s not quite 48,700, making up 1.4 percent of all farmers. Most of them—88 percent—live in the South and Mid-Atlantic.
Edwards, originally from Ohio, moved to Washington state with her family as a teen. She majored in hospitality in college and also studied culinary arts at Portland’s now-closed Le Cordon Bleu. Her career in food service raised questions. “I really wanted to know where my food came from,” she says. “It led me on this journey of discovery.”
Edwards began volunteering on a farm, and “it was awesome,” she says. “I fed chicken and pigs, and I scooped a lot of cow poop.” That experience led her to Cultivating Success. The classes, she says, “really got me thinking about what I wanted to do.”
Afterward, she pursued an entry-level rural farm internship, which proved difficult to find. She landed phone interviews only to be later told she was either “over-qualified” because of her work experience and salary history or “under-qualified” because of her lack of farm experience. “They would also say I wouldn’t fit in because I was too old. I was just going into my 30s at the time. I applied for internships for two years, and I got denied for two years. I was ready to give up.”
Then she interviewed at Willowood Farm of Ebey’s Prairie in Island County, where the population is about 85 percent White, and got the job. She was excited, but nervous. “It’s really scary to move out to a rural White community where you don’t know if you’re going to be accepted or not,” says Edwards, who was hired as an intern in March 2016 and was slated to stay through October.
At meet-ups for interns from regional farms, she noticed she was the only person of color. “I remember when I first moved to the farm, I actually kept my bags packed for a period of time because I was afraid I would get chased off the property,” she says. “I felt like I was putting myself in a very vulnerable situation.”
Now she feels “empowerful.” She’s traveled to Washington, D.C., twice with the National Young Farmers Coalition to lobby for funding for young farmers, including beginning farmer training, outreach to socially disadvantaged farmers, and mental health services for farmers. She was recently appointed to serve on the coalition’s board of directors. She’s also shared her story and perspective in essays and on panels, including, in 2018, the inaugural Seattle Food Tank Summit and the Tilth Alliance Conference, where she gave a talk titled “The Unbearable Whiteness of Farming in the PNW.” Today, she’s working on building a network of Pacific Northwest Black farmers. She’s also working with the Organic Seed Alliance to help build a network of Black seed growers.
She’s participating in the 2020 Heirloom Collard Green Variety Trial, hosted by Seed Savers Exchange and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and growing some 20 different varieties of heritage collard greens, including a few that were almost forgotten.
Edwards recently started her own enterprise: Ebony by Nature, a fiber arts farm selling plants for home dye gardens and naturally dyed fiber as well as seeds. She also continues stewarding the land at Willowood, where she ended up staying through winter 2016 and getting hired back for subsequent seasons eventually as both farm and harvest manager.
Now she’s pondering her next steps, working with local land trusts, incubator farms, and farmer-to-farmer land-linking programs to help her find her own land—and remaining optimistic.
“I want to farm,” says Edwards, whose goal is to raise sheep and expand her seed-growing business. “And I’m determined to reclaim farming in my own way.”
Jim and Connie Long
Fresh Cut Farms, Deer Park
When Jim Long was preparing to retire from a 30-year career with the United States Air Force, he and his wife, Connie, considered a transition to farming. They had cultivated a small garden when they lived in South Dakota and were interested in scaling up. “We saw that we could make an income and not have to punch a clock,” says Jim, who grew up in Mead and was stationed around the country and overseas.
He and his wife had been planning to move to Montana in retirement until they stumbled upon property outside of Spokane that seemed a perfect fit. “It was the old house that really drew us in,” Jim says, noting, “There were only two other owners besides us.”
The original homestead stretched some 250-plus acres. The Longs bought three 10-acre parcels, including a pre-1900 farmhouse and 1947 rancher, in July 2015. Most of the acreage, Jim notes, was overgrown. “Saplings were coming up in the fields,” he says.
Sheep provided “quick entry” into farming, so the property—zoned for agriculture—could “start showing some kind of revenue,” says Jim, who spent his first 10 years in the military “turning a wrench” and his last 20 years in management.
Of Washington state’s nearly 63,300 farmers, just over 8,100 served in America’s military. Seventy percent of them farm fewer than 50 acres. Eighty-two percent are 55 and older. And 92 percent are men. But new farmers, with fewer than 10 years of farming experience, like Jim, make up less than a third of all farmers with military service in Washington state.
The Longs founded Fresh Cut Farms in 2016, planting berries, starting a garden, and taking the name from the road where they live: Cross Cut. “We’re Fresh Cut on Cross Cut,” says Jim, who retired with the rank of chief master sergeant in April 2019.
In 2017, just one year into their farming operation, he was stationed overseas for a 12-month assignment, leaving Connie to manage their new venture on her own. Before he left they sold off the cows and goats to help lighten her load. She brought berries to the farmers market for the first time that year.
When Jim returned, the couple sold berries and other produce at two farmers markets instead of one. They also planted 120 cherry, apple, peach, nectarine, and apricot trees on about a half-acre. They’re hoping to increase their orchard to an acre and a half during the next several years.
The Longs also hope to expand their garden, which now stretches about a third of an acre, to an acre and a quarter, but not much more. “We’re both hands-on,” says Connie, who worked in management for a hospitality company before retiring a couple of years before her husband. But, “that’s enough for the two of us,” Jim says. “We can’t do much more than that.”
Last winter, with the help of a USDA grant, they installed two high-tunnel greenhouses to expand their offerings. “We want to make it like a grocery store experience, so we have variety and you can get all your vegetables at one stop,” Jim says, noting, “We won’t sell anything we don’t grow ourselves.”
While their farm isn’t certified organic, the Longs use organic practices. Among their crops: kale, kohlrabi, Bibb and other lettuces, spinach, peppers, raspberries, strawberries, squash, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, cabbage, and more.
Now they’re regulars at three farmers markets: Clayton on Sundays, Fairwood on Tuesdays, and Emerson-Garfield on Fridays. Twice a week, they also offer online ordering with pick-up on Thursdays and Saturdays.
Their plan is to grow slowly—and that’s something they learned through WSU. They went through Cultivating Success as well as five or six other classes through Extension and Spokane Neighborhood Partners. Lessons learned include, Connie says, “Don’t try to tackle everything at one time. Start small, then move on to the next step. Master that and keep going.”
The classes “gave us ideas and contacts,” Connie says. “They laid the foundation.”
Long-term plans include turning two small grain silos into campsites, and maybe adding U-pick opportunities. The Longs are also thinking about adding flowers and Christmas trees. And, when the historical farmhouse is renovated, “We want to get into agritourism,” Jim says. “We’d like to be self-sustaining, like the farms of old. We would like to grow and take care of ourselves.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture shows an across-the-board decline in the numbers of farms, farmers, and farmland, with serious implications for food production, the environment, and the next generation of farmers.
Small farms make up 90 percent of farms nationwide but account for just over half of America’s farmland. It’s a similar landscape in Washington state, where there are nearly 35,800 farms—down from just over 40,100 farms 20 years ago. Of those, about 33,000 are considered small farms.
American farmers average 58 years of age—more than a third are 65 and older, and more than another third are between the ages of 55 and 64.
Of this country’s 3.4 million farmers, 70 percent are potentially slated to retire within the next 20 years.
Most—95 percent—are White. And most—64 percent—are men.