"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
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
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
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
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,"
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