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Fresh start

Incubator program nurtures aspiring organic farmers

November 23, 2011 | By Jenny Peek

A fresh group of agricultural entrepreneurs is working the land in Wisconsin. They're newcomers to the United States, often eager to renew traditional farming practices. Janet Parker helps them reconnect with the soil.

Janet Parker
Parker helps new farmers start
organic produce businesses.

Parker, who earned her master's degree in land resources from the Nelson Institute in 2002, is the farm incubator facilitator at the Linda and Gene Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability in Verona, Wis. She helps displaced farmers from Mexico, Laos and many other countries start their own organic produce businesses on the Farley Center's 43 acres.

The immigrants often face enormous challenges assimilating to their new surroundings, Parker says, especially those who had made a living off the land back home. Through the Farley Center, these new residents are given access to land, equipment and support (see a slide show of photos).

"The farm businesses are led by people who come from all over the world and they are drawing on millennia of farming knowledge in their cultures," she explains, noting a communal spirit among fellow farmers. "We've seen a lot of cooperation between people with different skill levels, even across language barriers."

Farm incubators are designed to provide a support structure for those who want to get into organic farming but lack the money to buy land and equipment. Although some incubators include livestock, farmers at the Farley Center stick to produce, growing an array of fruits and vegetables that range from typical Wisconsin crops to traditional ethnic foods.

Six small farm businesses currently grow produce on land provided by the Farley Center, which is 15 miles southwest of Madison. Parker is always looking for more acreage in the Madison area to be able to add farmers to the incubator program. To aid in the search, she launched a service called Land Link.

Natural Path Sanctuary offers
eco alternative to entombment

The Farley Center is constantly
working to be ahead of the curve
when it comes to eco-friendly
practices and developments. In
addition to their farm incubator,
the center recently established
the Natural Path Sanctuary, one
of only a few green cemeteries
in the United States.

"We're really in the vanguard
with this," Parker says. "Instead
of embalming fluids and big caskets,
the idea is taking the body in the
simplest way and getting it back
into the ecosystem."

The process of creating an
ecologically sustainable natural
cemetery began when Linda Farley
was buried on the property in 2009
and the Farley family saw an
opportunity to create an alternative
method to mainstream burial
practices. The center acquired
the necessary permits and now
offers burials more in tune with
the cycles of nature. Parker says
there's a lot of demand for a
greener alternative when life ends.

"There's a big list of people who are
interested, including people of all
ages," she says. "People are thinking
it through and making plans,
even if they are not thinking
of leaving this life just yet."

"Land Link is a matchmaking service between organic farmers who need land and those who want their land used," she explains. The Farley Center hosts "mixer" events for landowners with available farmland to meet aspiring farmers in need of land, and provides Hmong, Spanish and English interpreters to help facilitate conversations.

The Farley Center also develops marketing strategies to help farmers sell their produce. This summer, farmers involved in the incubator program began selling fruits and vegetables to consumers through newly formed community supported agriculture (CSA) ventures, the first in the state operated by immigrants according to Parker. So far, more than 30 households have purchased shares in these CSAs, which create a partnership between farmer and consumer.

"It's very exciting," Parker says. "It's a great accomplishment; I hope other immigrant farmers will follow in their footsteps."

The farmers have begun the process of becoming certified organic, which Parker says is also a first for immigrant farmers in Wisconsin. After a required USDA waiting period of three years without the use of chemicals, their produce will be labeled as organic, including the crops grown for the CSA.

The Farley Center and the farmers are helping to strengthen the community in other ways as well, and they're expanding their positive impact into Madison neighborhoods.

The center supported two new mobile fruit and vegetable stands that bring the farmers' fresh produce to low-income neighborhoods. These "green carts" offer low-cost, healthy foods in neighborhoods that have limited access to grocery stores.

"These arrangements benefit our farmers and those in the neighborhoods who are getting better access to food," Parker says.

The center also holds free workshops and training sessions. In 2011 alone they conducted about 20 workshops on organic certification and marketing through CSAs, along with hands-on construction demonstrations of greenhouses and low-cost farm coolers. Every Farley Center-sponsored workshop, session and event is presented in Spanish, Hmong and English to accommodate the state's diversifying family farm community.

"It's been a really fast and furious and productive season," Parker says.

Jenny Peek is a UW-Madison senior majoring in journalism and environmental studies. Learn more about the Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability at

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