A Farm of Her Own

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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.

After Nelida and I are introduced, we sit under the shelter of the washing area on the farm while it drizzles around us. Sarita, the program director at Viva Farms, sits with us to help translate our bilingual conversation. For Nelida, Spanish is a second language, with Mixteca as her first. We sit next to boxes of cucumbers and there are a few flies buzzing around us. But what I feel buzzing in the air is the strength and power radiating off of these two women I sit in a circle with.

A lot of the farms I worked on, Nelida begins, “would tell us that when we wash our clothes, we shouldn’t mix our work clothes with our regular clothes because the chemicals will penetrate our clothes and our children’s clothes and will be contaminated. So I really started seeing that the environment where I was working was really bad for us, and it causes us to contract diseases and sickness. They are conscious of what they are putting on those plants and that they’re putting us in danger.

“When my son got sick with leukemia, I really started thinking about the chemicals I worked with and how I wanted to have a healthier life for my family. I wanted to grow my own food organically and know where it was coming from and work in a healthy environment. I didn’t want to put up with it anymore. Sometimes you just get a knock that makes you realize you need to change your life, and when my son got sick that was my knock, and it caused me to start my own farm.

Of course, starting a farm is not easy. Accessing land and resources is difficult for most beginning farmers, but again, for immigrant farmers or transitioning farm workers the task is far more daunting. Nelida, however, not only had the strength and skills to make her vision a reality, but she also had the opportunity to take advantage of a unique model that gives beginning farmers the head start they need.

Nelida rents two acres at Viva Farms, a farm business incubator on 33 acres of certified organic land. Incubator farms have been cropping up all over the country and can be great ways to provide hands-on learning for new farmers or minimize prohibitive costs for start-up farm businesses. Many incubators provide land, infrastructure and machinery at low rental rates that eliminates some of the most expensive start-up costs for farmers. Viva leases organic land at half the market rate, provides irrigation infrastructure and maintenance, machinery, cold storage, washing facilities and a business center for invoicing and labeling. In an industry that caters to large farm businesses with industrial cold storage warehouses or expensive equipment rental, something as simple as accessible cold storage for the few crates of produce a small farmer needs to chill before delivery, or tractors available on site to rent by the hour, can make that vital difference for survival and success.

Viva also combines their start-up incubator with beginning farmer education. While most of their farmers don’t lack in agricultural skill, some need the farm business education. A common trend taking place throughout Skagit Valley and eastern Washington is one where Latino foremen working on farms are taking over family farms they have worked on for decades. Retiring farm owners are handing over the business to farmworkers — who often know the farms better than the owner’s children who don’t work on the farm, nor have interest in taking over. And while these transitioning farm owners have the agricultural skill and vast production knowledge, they may not have had the opportunity to be in managerial positions and make the business and planning decisions, so the classes help with that.

Viva offers language support in English dominated markets. They also provide marketing and distribution outlets, such as an on-site market, a CSA, and distribution and delivery to Seattle restaurants and markets, creating a sort of cooperative among the farmers that grow there. Farmers interested in joining the incubator first take the courses taught bilingually by the Viva team at Washington State University (WSU), which cover the nuts and bolts of sustainable farming and farm business planning. They then submit a business plan and get started, with all upfront costs for land, infrastructure and coursework coming to about $5,000.

We are trying to take the capital needed to start a farm and first reduce it as much as possible and then divide it out into a lease rate so folks can bite it off, says Sarita, the founder of Viva Farms and coordinator of WSU’s Latino Farming Program. It doesn’t make farming free, but it makes it low enough that the risk of starting up is manageable. Basically, they can get into farming, and if it doesn’t work out, it’s not too much skin off their back. And instead of paying off loan debts, they can be saving their income from the farm and setting themselves up to eventually move off site onto their own established farm. Our ultimate goal would be for them to become established enough that they can buy us out if they so choose, taking over this land and developing their own cooperative farm business if that’s the direction they want to move. It’s about facilitating the goals they’ve set for their businesses.”

When Viva Farms started in 2009, there were six Latino farmers that joined; all of them are still farming here today, in addition to seven more farmers. One couple has now bought their own 13-acre farm after starting at Viva with just an acre. Santiago, another farmer, started with two acres and had a five-year goal of growing to ten acres, which is exactly what he has done. Another couple, who suffered a deportation in their family last year, still have their operation running here and another five acres leased elsewhere. And Nelida, who started out with just a small plot at a community garden in her farmworker housing community, found out about Viva and was one of the first farmers to start there.

“I’ve been farming here at Viva for four or five years,” says Nelida with a warm smile, “I was living in the San Jose apartments [a subsidized farmworker housing community] when I met Leah, the childcare coordinator there, and she knew my situation with my son Danny, and she knew that I wanted to create income for my household because my husband was the only one working at the time while I took care of Danny. I told her I needed to do something but wanted it to be something good and healthy this time. She told me about a community garden I could use to grow food and maybe sell at market. I got a plot there and started growing, but after a short time, I already wanted to grow more!

“She connected me with someone who let me use a quarter acre of his land, and I started planting tomatoes, jalapeños, cucumbers and a little of everything. I was growing for my family but also selling a little. I started meeting a lot of people this way at the markets, and I began making enough money to then lease an acre of land to grow more. I started planting strawberries and blueberries and have kept growing little by little. Then I met Sarita and learned about Viva Farms. I started going to the classes and then started growing here. Now I sell my produce and berries here at the Viva farm stand and at farmers markets on Saturdays where I also sell ready-made foods.”

Nelida is known as La Estrella because, as Sarita notes, “she is awesome at farmers markets.” She makes fresh tortillas, pressing the tortillas and grilling them right there at the market. Customers can buy a stack to go or buy her fresh quesadillas that she makes with squash blossoms, herbs and peppers that she grew. Nelida says, “No soy tortillera, I’m not a tortilla maker, I’m a farmer,” but she saw the opportunity to harness her culinary skills and the food culture she brings from Oaxaca to create added-value products to sustain her business. She saw that just selling the tomatillos, jalapeños or other crops wouldn’t go as far. In a society where many have lost their food culture, this is an added value that farmers like Nelida bring to agriculture.

Nelida’s example has prompted Viva Farms to consider adding another aspect to their business incubator: a Seattle-based restaurant where startups can have access to a commercial kitchen while also bringing their culinary skills and farm fresh food to the broader market of Seattle.

“Viva Farms has been so helpful in getting my business started,” Nelida says. “The hardest thing for me is talking with the customers. I can increase my production, but I also need to keep increasing my sales. Viva helps me with that by finding markets and communicating in English. But the best thing is that I have been able to get my business started and now I am self-employed, I don’t work for anyone else! Now I want to help others who have been in my same situation get to this point.

“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. And we don’t have the money for land. But it is possible. First there has to be communication about what is possible and what you want to do as a family, talk about your goals. But sometimes you just get that knock, and when you get called to do something, the important thing to remember is that you can do it.”

Read more from The Color of Food:

Community Traditions and Food
From Total Loss To Sustainable Success

Reprinted with permission from The Color of Food, by Natasha Bowens and published by New Society Publishers, 2015.