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Farm Laborers Get A Foothold With Their Own Organic Farms

Agricultural work, which is physically demanding, is also a risky business venture.
Kirk Siegler
Agricultural work, which is physically demanding, is also a risky business venture.

Northern California's Salinas Valley is often dubbed America's salad bowl. Large growers there have long relied on thousands of seasonal workers from rural Mexico to pick lettuce, spinach and celery from sunrise to sunset. Many of these workers seem destined for a life in the fields. But a program that helps field workers, like Raul Murillo, start their own farms and businesses is starting to yield a few success stories.

Murillo leases a 3-acre strawberry farm from a nonprofit called ALBA Organics. It trains longtime workers in organic farm management and helps with things like fertilizer and irrigation tools.

Murillo can sell his berries back to ALBA's cooperative, which does a brisk business with grocery stores in the nearby Bay Area.

If God permits, he says, he'll continue turning a modest profit so he can hire more people who need the work. Under ALBA's rules, Murillo can lease this land at a subsidized rate only for a few years; after that he's on his own. But it's a risk he's willing to take even though he'd leave behind the steady paycheck he gets still working for big growers.

It's about being your own boss, instead of working for a foreman, he says. And at 45, he wants to try going out on his own before he gets too old.

Murillo's story is not unlike many of the 50 or so other farmers-in-training here at ALBA. Many have spent their entire lives in the fields, moving from one harvest to the next, from California down to Mexico, then back.

Farmers at ALBA learn about production, marketing, management and organic farming in order to start their own farming businesses.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
Farmers at ALBA learn about production, marketing, management and organic farming in order to start their own farming businesses.

"So it gives them a chance to take a bit of control of their lives,and not have to work for somebody else," says Nathan Harkleroad, who is in charge of ALBA's training programs, which are run out of an airy, converted farm house.

"You know, is everyone going to make it? Probably not," Harkleroad says.

Probably not because there are a lot of barriers. Language and the high price of land, to name just two. Still, since 2002, 90 ALBA graduates have managed to break through and start their own farms. And they're doing well today. Harkleroad attributes some of that to growing demand for local produce. But it's also due to a lot of hard work.

"You know our farmers are here six days a week, and on their seventh day they're probably worrying about their crops here. So, you have to be willing to accept that. You have to be willing to accept a certain level of risk, too," he says. "Farming is inherently a risky business."

Gail Wadsworth, head of the California Institute for Rural Studies, which advocates for farm worker rights, adds that "the reward economically isn't that great."

She adds: "I don't think that there are that many farmers that you can look at and say, 'Wow, you know, they've really made it.' "

Wadsworth says ALBA's mission of empowerment and teaching business skills to long-marginalized farm workers is good. But she's not sure encouraging them to launch into farming on their own is a good idea.

"Agricultural work is physically very demanding," she says. "It's one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S. But you're not risking everything that you own basically. You don't have the risk of owning land or a business."

That's why 23-year-old aspiring farmer Octavio Garcia has a backup plan. He's almost finished with the ALBA program. He's been able to hire three employees and is now looking for land to lease elsewhere in the valley.

"I want to be my own boss. And when I came from Mexico, I came with the idea of doing something better," Garcia says.

But if Garcia can't find suitable land to lease soon, he'll head to school. He's just been accepted into a plant science program at Fresno State.

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Corrected: August 7, 2013 at 11:00 PM CDT
In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we say ALBA Organics is a cooperative. Actually, it is a nonprofit organization.
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.