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Featured Fellow Series: An Interview with Sarita Role Schaffer

Sarita Role Schaffer is a 2013-2014 BALLE Local Economy Fellow and the founder of Washington-based GrowFood and Viva Farms, Washington’s first bilingual farm incubator program. She recently spoke with BALLE about agricultural incubators, social justice, and the future of design in the Localist movement.

BALLE: What is the current state of affairs with Viva Farms? What is the scale and scope of its work?

Sarita Role Schaffer: We have 33 acres at our main site where 13 different farms are currently operating. One is a student farm that is part of a new consortium of community colleges throughout the Puget Sound Area. We’ve been working with them to develop a new sustainable food and agriculture curriculum for the workforce development component of the community college system.

Over half of the farms we have worked since Viva Farms first opened have spun-off either partially or completely. The partial spin-offs still have some land in production at Viva Farms but are also farming their own acreage off-site. The folks who have spun-off completely have moved their entire farm operations to a new piece of land that they are renting or own independently of Viva. They have graduated from the incubator, which is our ultimate goal: to support people to independence.

BALLE: You are in the middle of a transition in your work right now, and we want to talk about what’s next for you in a minute. Before we do that, however, I’m wondering if you can look back and tell us what you consider to be your most substantial achievements, occurrences, and successes from this last era of your work.

SRS: I would definitely say that Viva Farms has been the climax of my last ten years of work. That program began in 2000 and brings together a lot of the challenges and opportunities that are facing young farmers, farmworkers and social justice work in the agricultural area.

BALLE: Who are the biggest partners and collaborators that Viva Farms has right now?

SRS: Our biggest partner, since the beginning and still today, has been Washington State University Extension, in particular the Small Farms team. We teach a series of beginning farmer and farm business planning courses with them, and we host many small and immigrant farmer workshops at Viva Farms that are connected to WSU’s larger programming.

The Port of Skagit continues to be a partner. We’re still based on their property, and they have been incredibly supportive of us growing our retail operations and looking at opportunities for expansion in the area, either through taking on additional land that is in close proximity, or potentially building better and larger infrastructure for light processing and distribution.

We have some really strong restaurant and cooperative grocery relationships that have been hugely important for the success of our farmers: In Seattle, there is a restaurant called Agua Verde, as well as the Central Food Co-Op. In Mt. Vernon there is the Skagit Food Co-Op. The three of those have been massively supportive.

Another partner that has been really exciting is North Coast Credit Union, which has been a key player on the community capital side of what Viva Farms is doing. They’re the ones that we have partnered with in developing our Farmer Reserve Fund, which is a microloan program both for the farmers at Viva and for other farmers in the area. We found that a lot of these farmers were working with Wells Fargo and other larger banks, and were not being treated well. So, we have helped them move their money into a local financial institution that, in turn, supports them and their vision and desire for the community.

BALLE: Beyond the social justice motivations for empowering Latino farmers in the United States, you feel that those farmers represent the future of agriculture in this country, and the strength and stability of our food system.

SRS: Absolutely. Beyond moving more towards justice, which is of course our ultimate goal, there is also an element of shear pragmatism. If you cared nothing about humanity, you would still want to care about what’s happening with Latino farmers in terms of the future of food in the U.S., because over 75% of the agricultural workforce in the United States is immigrant, and they are almost entirely coming from Mexico. So, Latino farmworkers are both the present and the future of farming in the United States. They’re running the farms. They’re running the pack houses. They’re running a lot of the transportation and distribution systems. There wouldn’t be a U.S. food system without these thousands and thousands of incredibly talented and hardworking Latino immigrants.

BALLE: Do you feel that there increasing mainstream awareness about that fact, or is that still an “underground” concept?

SRS: I think that the consciousness is growing. More and more I hear rumblings of a domestic fair trade certification that individuals and groups are working on. In some ways I feel like in the last several years we have seen this shift from consumers seeking out organic food to consumers seeking out local food. I think there has been some disillusionment around the organic standards being watered down, so the bigger part of the shift from organic food to local food is that people are looking for food production that cares for the community beyond the environment. People still want organic, but they see that as a baseline now, and they want the social justice and local economy components of their food system emphasized as well.

BALLE: When you look back at your work over the last ten years, if you could go back and do one thing differently, what would it be?

SRS: The first thing that comes to mind is that I would have spent more time in Mexico in the communities where the farmers in the U.S. are coming from directly. I had an incredible opportunity during those ten years to spend a lot of time in South America – because that’s where some of the most exciting work in the local organic food movement was happening – but I feel like since so many of the incredible immigrant farmers in the United States are coming from Mexico, I would have loved to have spent more time in their communities. Their agricultural knowledge and culture runs so deep, that I think it would be such a gift to visit those places.

BALLE: You are in the midst of a big transition right now in your work. Tell us about the new direction you are headed in. What are you doing and why?

SRS: I am still incredibly involved at Viva Farms, but I’m taking the time to acquire new tools that I think are going to be incredibly powerful and necessary for the movement to evolve to the next steps. I’m doing a design program that is part traditional graphic design and part about the newer aspects of the design field, which are focused on the user experience and user interface. There are so many opportunities for design and creativity in the world of agriculture.

BALLE: So how do you see design directly impacting the work of local agriculturalists?

SRS: I love the cultural side of food and farming, and one really important component of the local food movement is connecting people back to the source of their food. A lot of that is done really effectively through story-telling and through creative and artistic means of communication. You can call it branding or whatever you want, but I would call it really making heart with people and connecting the customers to the stories of the farmers. I’ve seen the power of that and the impact it has in connecting people to Viva Farms, to our organization, to agriculture, and the whole legacy of farming in our region.

There is also a lot of work to be done in the realm of movement design. Now that we have developed positive solutions to some of the world’s most pressing solutions, how do we communicate these in simple and inspiring and attractive terms those who have not fully jumped on board with the Localist movement yet?

These are areas where there is a huge opportunity for us as a movement to grow and improve.

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