This is the second half of this month’s series dedicated to women farming in honor of Women’s History Month. This series pulls excerpts from my book, The Color of Food, specifically the chapter dedicated to women entitled “Fierce Farming Women.”
Today, we meet Nelida Martinez, owner and operator of Pure Nelida Farms in Skagit Valley, Washington. Her friends at Viva Farms, an incubator farm program where she started her organic farm and where she still grows some of her produce, call her La Estrella, the star. And she is becoming quite the star, recently featured in this Civil Eats post, among others, for her amazing work.
Her story is powerful. Having migrated up from Oaxaca, Mexico to California then Washington, picking berries and working for conventional farms at the age of sixteen, she is now an organic farm owner. She’s left the toxic environment of farm work behind for the health of her family. This excerpt is from Nelida’s chapter entitled “A Farm of Her Own”:
I arrive at the farm and meet Nelida and Sarita under the shelter of the washing area while it drizzles around us. Sarita helps 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.
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.
“We [Latino farmworkers] are the majority…but we come here and it’s a lot of humiliation for us…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… But sometimes you just get that knock…the knock for me was when my son was diagnosed with leukemia…
A lot of the farms I worked on 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 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 startup 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. They also have a large farm stand where the farmers, like Nelida, can sell their produce.
“I’ve been farming here at Viva for four or five years…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…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 [co-founder of Viva Farms} and learned about Viva Farms… 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 now has two acres at Viva Farms and two acres of her own. She is known as La Estrella because, as Sarita notes, “she is awesome at farmers markets.” Nelida 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 from her farm…Nelida 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. But, she says, “No soy tortillera, I’m not a tortilla maker, I’m a farmer.”
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