|John Parks (below) and Earl Robinson (left, in red) benefited from mentors who helped them launch small fruit operations as part of an immigrant-focused program. |
Photos by Barbara Norman
Farm Mentors Teach Production, Life Skills to New Producers
Armando Arellano was a Chicago baker for more than 20 years when he saw a chance to realize his life’s dream. With help from a farmer mentoring project run by a Michigan agricultural non-profit organization, Arellano traded in his baker’s whites for a farmer’s straw hat and today raises fruit and vegetables on his new 60-acre farm. Making good use of his city connections, Arellano trucks his products to Chicago restaurants and also sells them at his farmstand in Covert, MI.
"I was looking for something I could do to raise my kids outside the city,” said Arellano, a Mexican immigrant who credits the Michigan Integrated Food and Farming Systems (MIFFS) organization with helping him get his start in farming. “When I came here, and they [MIFFS staff] told me about this farm, I just forgot about the bakery.
MIFFS received a SARE grant to bring better opportunities to minority farmers through education. That knowledge, passed through pairing experienced farmers with aspiring ones, took advantage of the power of one-on-one learning.
“Farmers learn better from other farmers,” said Barbara James Norman, a third-generation blueberry farmer in western Michigan and coordinator of the MIFFS mentoring project. “By going one-on-one in the field and around the kitchen table, we help small farmers become more economically viable. We get them going one farm family at a time.”
The program, centered on African-American and Hispanic farmers, serves a growing need in southwest Michigan. Norman selected six mentors and paired them with 14 new farmers over the 2 years of the project. MIFFS augmented with training in English language skills, integrated pest management through Michigan State University, and proposal writing. The organization also held 10 well-attended weeks of business training using the SARE-funded “Tilling the Soil of Opportunity” course.
While they intended the mentoring to last 2 days, some farmers extended their relationships, visiting frequently to share information or assist with harvesting or marketing.
With help from Norman, who was assigned as his mentor, Arellano wrote a successful application for a USDA Farm Service Agency loan and purchased his farm in Covert in Michigan’s famed fruit belt. “They’ve been so good to me,” Arellano said. “Any time I have a problem, they help me.” After going to a MIFFS Web development workshop, he launched a website promoting his farm. [View the project report.]