Three farmers, many lives
Graduates of the ALBA program--now independent farmers--say what they value most is growing food without chemicals, working with family members and being their own bosses.

By Laura Sayre

Maria Luz Reyes

In early spring at the ALBA farm, Maria Luz Reyes is seeding beets with an Earthway seeder. She already has parsley in the ground; in addition, she says, she will be growing cilantro, red and green chard, and green-leaf, red-leaf, and romaine lettuces. This is her second season, and she is stepping up from a half-acre to one-and-a-half acres. Last year she marketed nearly all of her produce through ALBA Organics, and she plans to continue to do so.

For 15 years, Reyes worked in an asparagus-packing facility. Today, in addition to managing her crops, she works part-time as a stable hand at a horse barn not far from here. She learned about ALBA through her husband, Florentino Collazo, himself an ALBA graduate and now RDC farm manager.

"Here at this farm they help you out a lot," Reyes says. Irrigation water and equipment is readily available, and each year ALBA arranges for a bulk delivery of composted chicken manure, allowing each farmer to request and pay for what they need. Collazo bought three tons and says she also uses fish fertilizer to supply nutrients. "Different crops have different needs," she points out. "The hardest thing is managing disease. There are some products you can use, but they don't always work."

Still, she argues that "it's better [to be farming] without chemicals."

"In Mexico people don't know much about organics," she says, so when they come to the United States they may not think at first about the dangers of pesticides in food production. If they go to work on conventional farms, however, they learn about those dangers quickly. "Here you can bring the kids, they can eat cherry tomatoes in the fields, and you know it's ok."

 

Alfredo Chavez

At 22, Alfredo Chavez is one of the youngest farmers to launch a farming enterprise at ALBA. In 2005—his second season farming here—he is managing 2.18 acres and is growing broccoli, green onions, cilantro, zucchini, and ‘Goldrush’ squash. Last year he also grew peas, cucumbers, and another variety of summer squash called ‘Magda.’ He decided to narrow his crop list based on what he found to be most marketable.

Chavez emigrated to the United States at age 8 and worked on several conventional farms as a teenager. "One day I was driving home and I heard on the radio about [the ALBA program]," he recalls. He came and talked to RDC program manager Patrick Troy and soon afterward signed up for the PEPA course. Today, Chavez and his wife Griselda live in Soledad--about 20 miles away--and come to the ALBA farm together to tend their crops.

"Working here is a lot better," Chavez says. "After you go home you can embrace your children and not worry about doing harm to their health. Working on a conventional farm, you have to shower first. You also know that what you are eating is safer, [and] you can eat directly from the field if you want to. You can't do that on a conventional farm."

Chavez also relishes the independence of being his own boss. "Here I can do my own work; nobody can tell me what to do," he enthuses. "I can work when I want to--I can bring my family, my parents and brothers. When you're working for someone else, on a conventional farm, you can't bring anyone--even for a short period of time--to show them where you work and what you do."

Asked about his future farming plans, Chavez says realistically, "This is the only way to start. You're not going to [be able to] buy land right away. First I will buy my own equipment, then maybe I can rent land somewhere else, then maybe I will be able to buy land."

 

Amparo Martinez

Amparo Martinez is one of ALBA's senior growers. Originally from Michoacán, he emigrated to the United States in 1989, took a series of jobs on large conventional farms in central California and first learned about the ALBA program in 1998. "The more I learned, the more interested I became"—both in the differences between conventional and organic farming and in possibilities of working for himself, he recalls.

Since then, two of Amparo's daughters, Martina and Maria, have also taken the PEPA course, and both now have their sights on careers related to farming: Maria is majoring in agronomy at Hartnell Community College; Martina is majoring in education and minoring in accounting at San José State University.

Together with the rest of the Martinez children (there are 12 of them in all, five boys and seven girls), Martina and Maria regularly help out at the ALBA farm. It's good to work together as a family, Amparo says. "I wouldn't be here if I hadn't had the help of my family."

Today, the Martinez family cultivates a score of acres, including 11 acres of strawberries at the ALBA farm and three acres near the town of Hollister a dozen miles to the northeast, where the climate is better suited to heat-loving crops like tomatoes. Their other vegetable crops include celery, squash, cilantro, lettuces, broccoli, fennel and parsley. "We know how to produce everything," Amparo says proudly, "but we have to focus on what grows best here, and what will sell well."

Some of those sales are handled through ALBA Organics, while others are made to retail outlets like Trader Joe's. The market for organic strawberries is particularly strong, Amparo says, adding that for buyers it is better to get organic strawberries from someone like himself than from the larger, conventional growers who are just dabbling in organic. "We really know what ‘organic’ is. We believe in it. If you believe in it you will try harder, [and] you will produce better quality crops."

Over the years, the Martinezes have been able to invest in most of the equipment required for fruit and vegetable production on this scale, including tractors, trucks, irrigation supplies, bed formers and other implements. They are also enrolled in a "matched savings" program through California FarmLink [www.californiafarmlink.org] whereby every dollar that they save up to $100 a month is matched with $3, or $300 a month, from other sources. One day, they hope to turn those savings into a down-payment on land of their own.

For the time being, the Martinezes continue to farm at ALBA because they have good relationships with the people here, Amparo says. They meet with the ALBA staff at least once a month, and they know they can go to them with any questions they have. "If there's a problem, they come and talk about it," he concludes. "Communication and trust are the most important things to have."

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