With a background in physics and mathematics, Surik Mehrabyan came to Ithaca years ago to work at Cornell University’s Synchrotron project. But after funding cuts eliminated that job, he found himself driving taxis and thinking about farming. During his childhood in Armenia, Surik had lived with his parents in the highlands, on what he describes as a “backyard-style” farm. His father had grown lots of potatoes and cabbage for the family, and Surik learned at a young age how to grow his own food.
Damon Brangman grew up and went to college in Bermuda. His first farming experience was working for his great-uncle, who owned a landscaping business and a small, diversified farm. There Damon got lots of hands-on experience with goats, chickens, and organic vegetables which he and his uncle sold through the local farmers’ markets. The experience sparked Damon’s lifelong passion for growing good food, and led him to join Groundswell’s Incubator Farm Program last spring.
Brangman and Mehrabyan are the first beginning farmers to launch their enterprises at the new Groundswell Incubator Farm in Ithaca. Located at EcoVillage just two miles from downtown Ithaca, the Incubator Farm is a ten-acre parcel of agricultural land which is available to qualified beginning farmers who need affordable access to land. In addition to growing space, the Incubator Farm offers access to a walk-behind tractor, tools, water and irrigation lines, tractor services, production and business planning support, and mentoring from experienced farmers.
“Small business incubation is an economic development strategy that’s been around for a long time,” says Joanna Green, Director of the Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming. “We’re just applying it to the farming sector. The extra support and mentoring we provide increases the odds for launching a successful, profitable farm business.”
The Groundswell Incubator Farm has another important function. “We’re especially focused on making the Incubator available to people who don’t otherwise have a pathway into farming, “ says Devon Van Noble, Groundswell’s Incubator Coordinator. “People with really limited financial resources, people of color, immigrants, refugees – these folks have priority in the application process, although anyone can apply.”
Farmers have three years to develop their farm business at the Incubator Farm. During this time they receive lots of mentoring from experienced farmers, and have to complete Groundswell’s Farm Business Planning Course. In the third year they can get help applying for an operating loan or farm purchase loan if appropriate, and in making a transition to another site. Groundswell is working with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County on a new “LandLink” project to connect beginning farmers with landowners, and help them negotiate a mutually beneficial land lease or purchase agreement.
Groundswell is looking for another two to three farmers to join the Incubator Farm next year. Space is available for livestock micro-enterprises as well as crops. For details about the program and an online application form, visit www.groundswellcenter.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 607-319-5095. Groundswell will provide one-on-one assistance with the application process, as well as translation support for those with limited English language skills.
The Groundswell Farm Business Incubator Program was launched with support from USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which was zeroed out in last year’s federal budget negotiations. Currently the program is supported by the Park Foundation, Appalachian Regional Commission/NYS Office for New Americans, and the generous support of individuals and businesses.