ALBA Grows New Farmers
April 10, 2009
Editor’s note: Today’s feature was written by volunteer Keri Badach.
Victorino and Irma Mendoza moved to California in 1983 and worked as farm laborers for many years. As they grew older it became difficult to find jobs because farm operators were looking for younger, more robust workers. Victorino decided he wanted to start his own farming business and in November 2007, he enrolled in an organic farm production program through the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA).
When he graduated last April, Mendoza began leasing a half acre of land through ALBA’s incubator program (where as many as 16 farmers cultivate more than 50 different crops at a time) to grow a range of vegetables. He has since added an additional acre and a half to test his hand at growing organic strawberries.
Victorino was so satisfied with his experience that he suggested his wife, Irma, and two daughters, Irma (24) and Rocia (19) enroll in the ALBA program. The three women have recently gotten their own individual plots of land and, although the family members will support one another, each has a different set of crops in mind. Victorino says his family is proud to grow healthy and nutritious food and glad to be working for themselves.
As the average age of the American farmer continues to go up, and the need for a new generation of small-scale farmers becomes clear, ALBA and other similar programs are a crucial piece of the solution. They also may help counterbalance the language and cultural barriers, shortage of resources, institutional exclusion and historical lack of government support that small-scale minority farmers have faced for generations.
Many of ALBA’s graduates have gone on to run successful farms and CSAs all around the state. Ferry Plaza Farmers Market seller Maria Catalán, of Catalán Family Farm, was an early graduate of the ALBA program.
ALBA’s two training and educational farms are designed as business incubators. The Rural Development Center (RDC) is located on a 110-acre organic farm between Salinas and Chualar and serves to help beginning farmers establish small farm businesses. The Farm Training and Resource Center, also known as ‘Triple M Ranch’, is located in northern Monterey County and demonstrates soil, water and habitat conservation to veteran farmers. The land at the ranch (195 acres in total, with 60 acres legally available for cultivation) is certified organic and provides experienced farmers with the ability to experiment with hybrid farming models and land options.
The six-month training program for new farmers is divided into five separate modules: marketing, business planning, crop planning, soil fertility, and pest, disease and weed management. The focus on sustainable practices — and on providing operating capital and access to land — goes a long way toward giving these farmers a chance at succeeding in the highly competitive world of California agriculture.
Participants lease ALBA’s land at deeply discounted rates, which increase gradually each year. This fee gives farmers access to irrigation, as well as technical assistance from ALBA staff. Farmers also become eligible to purchase additional land with each passing year.
ALBA also operates a licensed produce distribution business called ALBA Organics, which offers students crucial marketing education on different sales strategies including wholesale, direct-to-retail, community supported agriculture and farmers’ markets. ALBA Organics conducts crop planning with the farmers and buys their products when possible.
According to Gary Peterson, ALBA’s Deputy Director, “ALBA is a great opportunity for farmers to learn by doing and start a farming career with some assistance and guidance.” The Mendoza family couldn’t agree more.
For more information about ALBA visit www.albafarmers.org/
Keri Badach is an employee of Rabobank International, a bank specializing in the food and agricultural industry, where she focuses on corporate social responsibility and sustainability. She began volunteering with CUESA last September and just recently left to return to New York.