From the ground up
In the heart of California's Salinas Valley, former farmworkers are getting a chance to start farms of their own.

By Laura Sayre
Posted May 12, 2005

FARMER PERSPECTIVE: Three farmers, many lives

"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.

Hands-on learning

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 one time.

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," he emphasizes.

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 Dina Izzo.

"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."

FARMER PERSPECTIVE: Three farmers, many lives