Year of Award


Document Type


Degree Type

Master of Science (MS)

Degree Name

Environmental Studies

Department or School/College

Environmental Studies Program

Committee Chair

Neva Hassanein

Commitee Members

Jill Belsky, Josh Slotnick


beginning farmers, farming education, incubator farms, land access


University of Montana


With the average age of farmers climbing close to retirement and an increased demand for locally and sustainably grown food, there is a great need for new and beginning farmers, particularly those engaged in alternative production practices. But the barriers to entry for these new farmers are high; land access, start up costs, finding a spot in the market, and a lack of social support all pose challenges. The last few years have seen an increased interest in supporting beginning farmers and the creation of new programs to do so. Incubator farms are one such promising strategy. Incubator farms are organizations that address the obstacles faced by beginning farmers by offering some combination of farming education, hands-on training, and low-cost access to land and infrastructure to help aspiring farmers start new agricultural businesses. Despite the rise in beginning farmer training programs, Niewolny and Lillard (2010: 65) have described it as one of the most “poorly understood areas of agriculture, food systems, and community development research and practice.” This research aims to further knowledge of this area by studying one approach, incubator farms, in depth and then bridging research and practice. Three case studies of existing incubator farm programs are presented: Viva Farms in Skagit Valley, WA; the Elma C. Lomax Incubator in Cabarrus County, NC; and Urban Edge Farm in Cranston, RI. Research methods include 30 in-person interviews with program staff and new farmer participants, site visits, and a review of program materials. Interview transcripts, field notes, and program materials were coded and analyzed to identify common themes. The farmers valued these programs for providing knowledge and information, physical infrastructure (reduced startup costs), access to land, support and camaraderie, and collaborative action. These benefits arise because the farmers are in close proximity: they create a community of growers. Most farmers were comfortable farming leased land, felt that the program was worth the challenges, and said that they would not have their own farm operation otherwise. Lessons learned are drawn from the research and recommendations are made for establishing future programs in other locations, with a focus on Missoula, Montana.



© Copyright 2012 Brianna M. Ewert