In the Northwest, small-scale farmers are the new rock stars. The New York Times writes about them glowingly. Filmmakers follow them around. Lots of people dream of becoming one—from unfulfilled tax accountants to newly minted public policy graduates to carpenters whose jobs dried up in the recession.

The explosion of farmers markets and growing number of mud-spattered entrepreneurs willing to deliver produce or sell you a percentage of a grass-fed cow clearly shows this is by no means impossible.  But the average income from a “beginning” farm in 2010 was a negative $888, according to the USDA. And in a region with such abundant options for buying locally-produced food, it’s easy to overlook the formidable barriers that new farmers have to overcome.

I spent some of my spare time over the last growing season following some of the new farmers at Viva Farms, an incubator in Skagit County, Washington, that aims to give aspiring farmers an affordable place to learn and build their business. It’s also one of the first in the country to serve two different populations with similar problems: 1) newbie career changers and interns coming off organic farms, as well as 2) experienced Latino farmworkers who want to work for themselves. You can read my cover story in this week’s High Country News (a free trial subscription is required) but here are some observations about what I learned.

First off, here’s a quick run-down of the problem:

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  • Anyone who wants to start a farm needs four things: money, land, equipment, and customers. Everything a new farmer needs to get started—from seeds to irrigation hose to equipment—requires cash. That’s all before they’ve sold a single carrot. Unless they’re bringing their own nest egg or investors, start-up funding is hard to find. Banks won’t loan to people without a track record, and even USDA grants geared toward “beginning” farmers typically require three years of experience.

    Many people looking to farm these days didn’t grow up in agricultural communities, so they don’t have the benefit of knowledge or own land passed down through their families. In rural areas near lucrative urban markets, where food producers compete with trophy homes, hobby alpaca farms, and horse stables, a single acre of farmland can cost tens of thousands of dollars. And even if ground is available to rent, it may not come with water rights, a tractor, or a greenhouse. In fact, in places like Seattle, where laws to preserve affordable farmland have had a mixed track record, people with dreams of starting their own farm sometimes wind up keeping chickens in apartments and growing tomatoes in their closets (on Capitol Hill, for real).

    Plus, few people on the planet naturally come by all the skills that successful farming requires: knowing how to fix a tractor, write a business plan, figure out what’s wrong with the water pressure at the far end of the field, track expenses on a spreadsheet, deal with health inspectors, and cold call chefs who might be in the market for a particular strain of heirloom squash.

    And even with the explosion of interest in small-scale farming, there are still far more farmers set to retire across the country than there are young people turning to it. Between the last two US Agricultural Census surveys conducted in 2002 and 2007, the number of farmers 65 and over increased by 22 percent while those younger than 45 fell by 14 percent and those younger than 25 dropped by 30 percent.

    That’s why Multnomah County, Oregon, launched a pilot program for new farmers this year that offers agricultural and business training and includes short-term field apprenticeships on public land. Even with Portland’s amazing food culture—with its food carts and butchering classes and chefs that have come to blows over the provenance of pigs—there still wasn’t much organized training for production-scale growing, said Dan Bravin, the county’s community food program coordinator. That concerned county leaders, as he told me for the story:

    There’s a lot of land that’s disappearing and a lot of knowledge that’s going away, and no one’s replacing it. There are an awful lot of people who call themselves farmers and they’ve sold a few things here and there and it’s a fun culture and it’s a hobby culture. But we’re trying to go way beyond that and make a really serious effort to fill that next generation.

    Other efforts around the region exist to close that gap, from programs that link aspiring farmers with people who own land to extended apprenticeships. But one of the coolest ones I’ve run across is Viva Farms. (It’s not just me who thinks so – it was the big winner at Seattle’s Social Innovation Fast Pitch Competition, where fledgling organizations compete for grants and investment.)

    The incubator, located on 33 acres rented from the county airport near Burlington, offers would-be farmers affordable irrigated land and access to essential infrastructure. The farmers who rent land there share a tractor, a greenhouse where they can grow seedlings until it warms up outside, and a new cooler that keeps their produce at the proper temperature and looking fresh. The farm also operates a Community Supported Agriculture program and a seasonal market stand, which allow Viva farmers to pool their products and give them guaranteed outlets for their crops.

    The program starts by giving those farmers a solid footing through a series of sustainable farming and business entrepreneurship courses offered by Washington State University’s extension program. Skagit County is the only place in the state that offers them simultaneously in Spanish and English. At their final graduation class, the students present their business plans, from the woman who wants to sell eggs from her off-the-grid homestead to the couple whose urban garden grew so big it started to look like a business. “The first class is so-you-want-to-farm and the second one is oh-so-you-want-to-actually-make-a-living farming,” said Sarita Schaffer, director of Viva Farms.

    Graduates with solid business plans are offered the chance to rent ground at the Viva Farms incubator. This year that included Nelida Martinez, who was exposed to a lifetime of agricultural chemicals as a berry picker and farmworker. When her son was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, she vowed never to set foot on a conventional farm field again. She and her daughter Lizette Flores, who were the main subjects of my story, are amazing and savvy businesswomen who work harder than just about anyone I’ve met.

    There are also people like Dan Leuthy, a physical therapist whose fondest childhood memories were of his grandparents’ farm, stumbling across fresh peas in the garden and mysterious buckets of bloodmeal in the garage. Leuthy had an epiphany at 44 that if he wanted his life to be different, he’d better start changing it. So he took seed saving classes, shadowed an edible landscape designer and did a workshare stint at an organic farm outside Seattle. But he wasn’t prepared to quit his day job. He found that renting acreage at Viva Farms was the perfect solution, as he explains:

    It’s supporting small people like me who have the interest in farming but don’t have the checkbook. It creates opportunities even for a city slicker like me on a limited income, since you’ve got to take your time to go off the farm and work. Balancing those things, how else would I be able to make a transition into farming without a major capital investment?

    At Viva Farms, one of the biggest challenges—and rewards—has been figuring out how to meet the needs of two different kinds of farmers. The Latino farmworkers may know how to weed a row in five minutes and have tricks for growing amazing strawberries. But some have never used a computer before or may be reluctant to try out their English on potential customers. Meanwhile, first-time Anglo farmers can sell produce on Facebook with their iPhones, but aren’t quite sure how to grow it yet. It makes for interesting and unexpected interactions.

    When Leuthy had a bunch of tomato starts that were dying, he gave them to Martinez. She nursed them back to health, talking to each yellow leaf. Sometimes, when he can’t get to the fields after his shift at the hospital, he finds his crops mysteriously watered. One day in the field, a Latino farmer was making fun of a white farmer’s fancy tool, until he tried it himself and realized it cut his task’s time in half. The two groups also tend to have a different tolerance for risk, said Schaffer, who also founded, the nonprofit that operates Viva Farms.

    The Latino farmers have the new immigrant attitude – they’ve come here to make it or break it. And some of the Anglo farmers look at them and say ‘Wow, maybe I should be a little bit bolder.’ And sometimes the Latino folks see them holding back and think, ‘Maybe I should be a little more careful.’ Even though they’re exactly the opposite lessons they’re teaching each other, it helps them find the balance between the two.

    As the US Farm Bill gets rewritten next year, there are plenty of policy changes that could be incorporated to help aspiring farmers and ranchers on a national scale. But the beauty—and limitation—of any incubator is that it invests in individuals and business ideas one at a time. The goal is for Viva growers to be able to spin off and establish self-sufficient farms within seven years. With just two growing seasons under its belt, it remains to be seen how growers will do. But there are already encouraging signs. Santiago Lozano, who moved from Oaxaca, Mexico when he was 12 to work in California’s fields, just bought his first tractor and implements with the second-year profits from his strawberry plots at Viva Farms. And each step that a farmer there takes towards independence is a sign that what they’re doing is working.