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A Farm of Her Own

Believing her son’s leukemia was directly related to the chemically treated fields she worked in, Nelida set out to start her own organic farm.

| April 2016

  • “We [Latino farmworkers] are the majority, and we come here and it’s a lot of humiliation for us, and many of us never think about having our own farm because we feel degraded by the work. But I didn’t want to put up with it anymore.” — Nelida Martinez
    Photo by Natasha Bowens
  • "When my son got sick with leukemia, I really started thinking about chemicals I worked with and how I wanted to have a healthier life for my family." - Nelida Martinez
    Photo by Natasha Bowens
  • Tomatillos are one of the many crops grown on Nelida's farm.
    Photo by Natasha Bowens
  • The Color of Food teaches us that the food and farm movement is about more than buying local and protecting our soil. It is about preserving community, digging deeply into the places we’ve overlooked, and celebrating those who have come before us.
    Cover courtesy New Society Publishers

The Color of Food, by Natasha Bowens, (New Society Publishers, 2015) teaches us that the food and farm movement is about more than buying local and protecting our soil. It is about preserving community, digging deeply into the places we’ve overlooked, and celebrating those who have come before us. Know widely as “La Estrella”(the star), Nelida, has shined as an organic farmer and continues to grow her business.

About 3,000 miles diagonally opposite of Burgaw, North Carolina, in the far northwest corner of Washington state, another fierce and determined woman refuses to let limitations stop her. I drove the miles to Skagit Valley, where migrant farmworkers travel the long miles up from Mexico and the Southwest to find work on the abundant farms spread across this fertile valley. One such worker decided she wanted more for herself, but especially for her children. She left the fields she’d worked since childhood and started a farm of her own.

As I drive up through the northwestern region of Washington state, it is raining and gray in late August, bringing the lushness of the Skagit Valley to life. Skagit Valley is named after the Skagit River, which derives its own name from the Native Skagit tribe who called the valley home for thousands of years. Skagit Valley is the richest agricultural area in the Western Hemisphere, with some of the best soil in the world. This is why a diversity of crops are grown, and the economy is hugely impacted by agricultural production. Known for large scale berry, apple, tulip and dairy farms, the agricultural industry in the valley brings in tens of thousands of migrant workers, primarily from Mexico. Like in many agricultural regions in the U.S., migrant workers face a lot injustice in the fields and have started to protest for better pay and improved working conditions. In fact, while I was in Washington, berry pickers from the Sakuma Brothers Farm, one of the largest berry farms in the state, were on strike, and I listened to the political discussion unfold on NPR as I drove up to the region where Sakuma Brothers operates. Little did I know that the farm I was on my way to visit sat right next to some of their fields and that some of the farmers I was about to meet used to pick for the Sakuma Brothers and now operate their own farms.

As I pull up to the Viva Farms, a farm incubator where small farmers independently operate their own farm businesses on shared land, a large farm stand sits at the corner, drawing in customers from the busy road leading to the highway. Beautiful berries, fruits and vegetables sit on display in this open air market, and the backdrop of the farm boasts rows and rows of the very plants most of the crops came from. The price tags for each product have different farm names scrawled across them, yet the big sign out front reads VIVA FARMS. A handful of people busily work in different sections of the fields while a large truck and a couple guys tinker at the irrigation pumps at the back of the farm. Another team of people are sitting in a trailer at the far end of the farm, sorting through invoices and clacking away on computer keyboards. It’s clearly an efficient and busy operation.

A truck pulls in and parks near long rows of raspberries and blackberries. Out hops a little woman with a curly ponytail and a spunky smile you could spot from acres away. Nelida, or La Estrella (the star) as she is nicknamed by many here at the farm, begins working in the rows of berry plants she started by seed. Her delicious berries sell for $3/pint in the farm stand and at market. Across from her berries, tomatillos, jalapenos, lettuce, cabbage and other vegetables grow happily. Everything is dripping and vibrant. I later ask Nelida what her secret is, and she answers, “lots of love and a little compost.” She has two acres that she cultivates here, and another two acres of land a few miles away where she grows more. Nelida rents both parcels of land to support her business selling produce and added-value products at local farmers markets. She is a wife and mother of six and says her favorite thing about farming — other than her love for the plants and fresh air — is working for herself and no one else.

Nelida, a Mixteca native of Oaxaca, Mexico, worked as a berry picker and farm worker from the age of 16. Arriving in the States alone with her three younger brothers after being abandoned by their alcoholic father and left at an orphanage in Mexico, she found migrant work with large berry and grape farms throughout California, and then Washington. But when her son fell sick, she vowed never to return to where she was forced to work with cancer-causing chemicals. She started her own farm, and now her berry field sits directly across from some of the Sakuma Brothers fields, and she fully understands the cause the berry pickers are fighting for. For her, the problem was not only the wage she was expected to live on while trying to pay for her son’s healthcare costs, but more so the environment she was expected to work in and expose her children to.

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