"See that tree?" asks Florentino
Collazo in Spanish, pointing out across the dead-level Salinas
Valley. "That's our tree, and it's the last tree in that direction
until you get to the mountains."
I look, and I see that he's right. Dubbed "America's Salad
Bowl" by its promoters and memorialized by John Steinbeck in
his epic novel East of Eden (1952), the Salinas Valley is blessed
with a long, mild growing season, abundant sunshine, and pliant,
fertile soils. Which is to say it's one of the few places on earth
that is both intensively and extensively cultivated. Over $1 billion
of lettuce alone was grown in Monterey County in 2003.
The 112-acre ALBA farm, where we are standing, is an organic oasis
within this desert of conventional agriculture, an island in a heavily
farmed sea. Here the fields are relatively small and are divided
by hedgerows made up of a dozen or more native plant species. The
land has been managed organically for nearly 20 years. Many of the
people who come here to farm are refugees of a sort, former farmworkers
from the conventional fields that stretch away in every direction.
ALBA, or dawn in Spanish, stands for the nonprofit Agriculture
and Land-Based Training Association (www.albafarmers.org),
one of the oldest and most successful examples of a growing movement
across the country to help would-be farmers with limited resources
gain access to land. Since 1985, says executive director Brett Melone,
an estimated 500 families have studied, networked, or developed
businesses with the help of ALBA's Rural Development Center. (In
its early years, the RDC was run as a project of the nonprofit Association
for Community Based Education; in 2001, it was spun off as ALBA.)
Collazo himself, now the RDC’s farm manager, worked for nearly
a decade as a Salinas Valley lettuce harvester. In 1995, he enrolled
in the RDC's organic farm management course; later he managed his
own organic farm operation on 5 acres of ALBA land. Today Collazo
helps other beginning farmers—many of them former farmworkers
like himself—move closer to their own dreams of farm management.
The ALBA program, meanwhile, has become a model for other "agricultural
incubator" projects nationwide.
At the heart of the ALBA community is a six-month course known
as el Programa Educativo para Pequeños Agricultores, or PEPA.
Running each year from November to April, the course covers everything
from the basic principles of organic farming to business planning
and marketing. Wednesday evening classroom sessions are complemented
by Saturday afternoon practica and field trips.
Classes take place in the farm's energy-efficient, straw-bale-construction
classroom and office building, completed in October 2004. Nearby
stands the property's original farmhouse, an aging barn, and a new
metal equipment shed; a bit further down the road is a freshly refurbished
packing house complete with walk-in coolers and loading bays.
One of ALBA's core principles is that the PEPA course be open to
all comers, free of charge. Everyone who successfully completes
the course is eligible to rent a half-acre of land on-site--including
access to water and basic tools and equipment--for $100 for the
first year. ALBA staff and other growers are available to give advice;
those who do well can request additional land in subsequent years,
with a modest increase in rent.
The PEPA course attracts people from many different backgrounds,
but the majority are Mexican immigrants who have worked or are working
on conventional farms in the Salinas Valley. (With the exception
of a few guest speakers, the course is officially conducted in Spanish,
although in practice it's comfortably bilingual. Most of the 12
ALBA staff members and many of the farmers—or their children—speak
both English and Spanish.)
A few PEPA students have worked on organic farms in California,
and many have also worked on farms in Mexico—generally, tending
crops and livestock on a much smaller scale, with few or no conventional
inputs. All of these factors contribute to an active interest in
organic production methods among the students. "Most people
who come here are wanting to get away from pesticides," says
RDC agronomist and program manager Patrick Troy. Much of the learning
process, Melone adds, becomes "a matter of reconciling different
scales of production."
To attract new participants, ALBA relies on word of mouth, occasional
mailings, posters at key community locations, and—the best
strategy, Melone says—short announcements on local Spanish-language
radio stations. "There's so much demand among farmworkers that
we haven't had to go beyond that," he explains, although he's
quick to add that the organization hopes to reach out to a wider
audience in the future.
Although there's always been high demand for the course, attrition
tends to be pretty substantial—most participants work full-time
at least (that’s a 60-hour week in agriculture), and it's
not easy to stick with it. "It takes true commitment to have
to work all day and then come here and do what you have to do,"
Melone says. "In some years, we've had 40 to 50 people in the
course to start out with. Usually we have between 20 and 30 people
who graduate in April, and then around 15 who want to rent land
that year." Typically, seven to 12 of those 15 will rent ground
for a second year and five to seven of those will rent for a third
year. There have been as many as 27 families farming at ALBA at
Even those who leave the program before their three years are up,
however, seem to get a lot out of it, Melone says. Some are able
to get better jobs than they had before or launch other types of
small businesses. (ALBA is in the process of a planning a program
evaluation in cooperation with the California Institute for Rural
Studies to measure these outcomes.) Plans are afoot to create a
community garden area at ALBA so that graduates of the PEPA course
can have the additional option of starting out on an even smaller
scale. "For some people, half an acre is more than they want
to take on," Melone acknowledges.
Room to grow
All ALBA farmers are required to adhere to organic standards and
to keep at least half of their land in cover crops for a minimum
of three months a year (usually beginning in October). One of the
great things about an incubator farm like this one, notes RDC agronomist
Patrick Troy, is that having many farmers farming relatively small
plots creates an enormous amount of biological diversity for the
property as a whole. That biodiversity in turn fosters beneficial
insect and animal populations that create a better growing environment
for each individual farm.
So far, ALBA has been able to maintain a healthy equilibrium between
available land, eligible PEPA graduates and established ALBA farmers.
After three years at the ALBA farm, participants are theoretically
expected to move on to make way for new growers--but in practice
this rule hasn't been enforced. In fact, the ALBA staffers say,
they've found it's advantageous to have a mix of experienced and
beginning farmers on site. "There's a lot of learning that
goes on in the fields, people going back and forth between plots,
sharing ideas," says Troy.
If they do stay beyond three years, ALBA farmers are asked to pay
market rates for land rent and water use. A couple of ALBA farmers
lease additional land in San Benito County, just to the east; another
option for more experienced growers is to rent acreage at another
property belonging to ALBA, the Triple M Ranch, located in Monterey
County to the west. (Because the Triple M consists of steeper terrain,
the primary emphasis there is on research and conservation; just
60 of its 200 acres are deemed suitable for arable production.)
The ALBA staff work informally with the graduates to help them
find land to rent elsewhere, and a few—like María Inéz
Catalán, who runs Laughing Onion Farm, a 15-acre mixed vegetable
operation in Hollister—are now managing farms of their own
in the area.
The program has also been successful in inspiring other farm incubator
projects across the country. When talking to such groups, Melone
says, he tries to be encouraging but realistic. There's a tremendous
need for this kind of program in many areas, but "there's no
cookie-cutter approach" to making it all work, he says. And
although neophytes might fantasize that incubator farms can be self-supporting,
the truth is it's nearly impossible to underwrite a training program
with vegetables alone. "It's really expensive to run this program,"
Going to market
One of ALBA's unique strengths as a farm incubator project is that
it assists its farmers with marketing as well as production. Since
2002, ALBA Organics has been a licensed produce distributor, buying
from the ALBA farmers and selling through a CSA, farmers' markets,
and other outlets. Part of the group's goal in creating ALBA Organics
was to help underwrite the costs of the incubator program; but education
is an equally important objective, explains marketing coordinator
"Our warehouse is also a classroom," Izzo says. "When
we're cleaning and packing and bunching, we're also talking about
presentation and standards and markets. Whether you're an experienced
farmer or a new farmer, there's always more to learn." Still,
Izzo strives to balance guidance with a hands-off approach. "We
try to inspire our growers to be independent thinkers as well as
independent farmers," she says.
All ALBA farmers are free to market their produce however they
see fit. Some sell through brokers, others sell to retail stores
like Whole Foods, others choose to sell through ALBA Organics. But
marketing can be a major challenge for beginning farmers—many
of them not fluent in English—getting started in the highly
competitive world of Central California fruit and vegetable sales.
It's a two-hour drive to San Francisco from here, 45 minutes to
Santa Cruz, 30 minutes to Monterey, and "the Monterey farmers'
markets are saturated," Izzo notes. Instead, ALBA Organics
sells at a relatively new farmers' market a bit further up the coast
in the town of Half Moon Bay.
Izzo, who came to ALBA after seven years in retail produce management
and purchasing, has big plans for ALBA Organics. Her goal for 2005
is to handle 60 percent of the ALBA farmers' produce, compared to
about 25 percent in 2004. The company is currently building a hydro-cooler,
which Izzo says will improve the quality of what it packs and thereby
boost sales. Ideally, ALBA Organics works with the ALBA farmers
to develop crop plans that maximize the mesh between what customers
are looking for and what the farmers are supplying. "We make
the commitment to growers: 'If you grow this, at this time, we'll
buy it,'" Izzo explains.
Alba Organics also plans to start buying and selling produce from
other small-scale organic farmers in the area. This past winter,
it bought produce from Phil Foster Ranch in San Juan Bautista and
from Lakeside Organics in Watsonville in order to maintain volume
through the off season. These larger, more established organic growers
don't need ALBA Organics as an outlet, Izzo acknowledges, but directed
some business its way as a way of supporting what ALBA represents.
As an organic produce distributor affiliated with a nonprofit farm
incubator program serving minority and limited-resource farmers,
ALBA Organics has enormous PR potential to offer its customers,
and the company is ready to make the most of it. It’s currently
selling to residential dining halls at Stanford University, Izzo
says, and has begun working with a local satellite facility of Sutter
Hospital, in turn a division of Catholic Healthcare West, the largest
nonprofit hospital network operating in California and one of the
largest in the country. The facility started by creating a small
display garden on its grounds, Izzo says, and it proved so popular
that a larger therapy garden is being considered. Moreover, the
hospital management team "has stated that their goal by the
end of 2005 is to have an organic option for all patients,"
Izzo reports—a decision that could significantly expand market
opportunities for local organic farmers.
Finally, in addition to university and hospital markets, ALBA is
working with school-oriented groups such as the Monterey County
Farm-to-School Partnership and the Community Alliance with Family
Farmers' Farm-to-School program. Not only can ALBA farmers provide
fresh fruits and vegetables for school kitchens, but the ALBA farm
makes a great field-trip destination for school groups, a place
where kids can get a different perspective on local agriculture.
Many of the farm-to-school initiatives in California emphasize “fresh”
and “local” over “organic,” ALBA staffers
say, so they feel it's critically important to be a part of that
discussion. "Some local people regard organics as a divisive
issue," notes Izzo. "So we don't make a big deal out of
it. But we can present organic as an added bonus."