Former Farm Laborers Become Farm Owners
|Combining classroom training in agronomy, organic practices, marketing and finance with field training over three years has created new, skilled farmers in Californias Salinas Valley. |
Photo by Jerry DeWitt
In Guerrero, Mexico, Maria Inez Catalan helped her parents on the family farm. When she immigrated to the United States in 1986, Catalan tended broccoli and carrots as a field laborer, helping one of Californias big farms produce huge quantities of vegetables.
Catalan wanted to work the land, but she sought to have more control over how the crops were raised and the land was treated. Assessing herself, with limited education and English skills, but no shortage of energy, Catalan decided to enroll in a small Salinas Valley program at the Rural Development Center (RDC) that provides agricultural training to Spanish-speaking immigrants with limited means.
The Programa Educativo para Pequenos Agricultores (Small Farmer Education Program) or PEPA combines classroom training in agronomy, organic farming practices and business management with practical field work actually raising a market crop. Upon completion of the free, five-month program, students can opt to farm a small parcel from the Rural Development Center for up to three years, applying what theyve learned and gaining a toe-hold in the agricultural industry.
The Center, part of the nonprofit Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), aims to help immigrants graduate from low-paying, low-satisfaction jobs to independent farming. Classes are held in the evenings and on weekends to accommodate student work schedules. They dont have anything to start out with, said Brett Melone, ALBA executive director, but they want to start their own businesses and become more independent, which is the goal of the program.
ALBA also runs a farmer training center, where a demonstration farm promotes conservation by showing environmentally sound practices folded into an economically successful operation. Melone and others hope to enlist supporters from urban areas, particularly around the subject of watershed restoration.
To be received into the small farmer education program, applicants must have some farming experience and need to be dedicated to the idea of a more sustainable agriculture, Melone said. They also must recognize the importance of family farming.
The RDC adopted sustainable agriculture principles in its classes in the early 1990s, partly as a result of a SARE grant with the University of California at Berkeley that encouraged alternative farming practices such as soil-building with cover crops and compost, and biological and cultural practices to combat pests. After the SARE project, use of cover crops at the RDC expanded from near zero to nearly 100 percent.
Catalan did well at RDC, where she took the three-year apprenticeship and grew a diverse assortment of annual vegetables. She also gained valuable experience direct-marketing her fruitful harvest: jicama, radishes, garbanzo and fava beans, tomatillos, broccoli, cilantro and lettuce greens, among other things. Catalan channeled her organizing skills into diverse projects: helping set up a community garden for Salinas residents and running a community supported agriculture project with other RDC graduates that serves residents in Monterey, Fort Ord and Salinas. Perhaps most important, Catlan co-founded a cooperative with fellow students.
The Asociacion Mercado Organica (AMO) co-op, comprised of 11 RDC graduates, leases 60 acres near the town of Hollister. There, each farmer tends about five acres and grows organic vegetables to sell jointly, under the AMO label at a premium. They share a new tractor and will soon own a refrigerated delivery truck.
Catalan credits the PEPA program for solidifying her decision to enter farming for herself. It offered educational opportunities in many different areas: sales, bookkeeping, certification, production requirements, fertility management and community-building, she said through an interpreter. They taught me to put insectory plants near crops to attract beneficial insects and rotate crops to avoid disease buildup in the soil.
She sells vegetables to local farmers markets and a direct-to-consumer retailer. After years of working for others, she relishes her hard-won independence.
Catalan is a model graduate of PEPA, although with an average of 15 graduates a year since 1985, the program boasts some 400 success stories. Many farmers from the primarily Latino community are interested in RDC; as many as 80 percent speak only Spanish and therefore lack access to information. Many also have low incomes and little access to credit or farm equipment. At RDC, farm equipment is available to all on a cooperative basis, and many of the lessons pertain to finances, record-keeping and organic certification processes.
They are limited-resource farmers with language issues, so government programs dont necessarily reach them, Melone said. They may not be getting the information they need to make intelligent land management decisions and apply them to conservation farm practices.
Catalan and her four children spend about 12 hours a day in the field, tending her piece of the AMO land and a five-acre piece leased by one of her sons.
My experience has been that if you want to get ahead, the U.S. offers the possibility, she said. You just have to be prepared to give it all your effort.
Immigrants from Mexico and Central America
|Educating Team |
Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA)s Rural Development Center, Salinas, California
|Challenges Addressed |
Limited access to capital or equipment
|Connection Strategies |
Advertising in Spanish language media
Word of mouth
|Teaching Methods |
Classroom lessons plus field experience
Tours with local farmers
Night and weekend classes