National Farmworker Awareness Week: Meet the Essential People Who Feed You

March 25, 2021

This National Farmworker Awareness Week (March 25-31) takes on heightened urgency in a year overshadowed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The essential role of farmworkers in our food supply has come into stark relief at the same time that they have been disproportionately impacted by the virus, putting their lives at risk to bring fresh, healthy food to our tables. The nearly 3 million farmworkers in the U.S. are the foundation of our agricultural industry, and it shouldn’t take a pandemic to remind us that they are essential, and ensure that they are protected.

Even at the farmers market, we often do not get to meet and thank the hardworking people who dedicate their lives to growing and harvesting our food. In celebration of National Farmworker Awareness Week and Cesar Chavez’s birthday, we asked our Ferry Plaza Farmers Market farms to shine a light on some of the team members who are vital to their farming operations. These heroes bring their specialized skills and knowledge, decades of experience, and passion to keeping us well fed. Here are a few of their stories.

Maria Bertha Yerena, Yerena Farms

Maria Bertha is the Farm Operations Manager at Yerena Farms. She moved to California from Jalisco, Mexico, shortly after her brother Apolinar (“Poli”) Yerena, and has been an integral part of the farm since the beginning, around 1976. 

Bertha is the backbone to how our farm operates. She keeps the safety of the employees in mind, manages the inventory and production, and leads training and scheduling. There are many steps taken to ensure quality with Yerena berries, and Bertha holds the highest standards of quality right when they are picked, which guarantees that our customers enjoy only the best! 

We are lucky to work with Bertha, who knows berry farming in and out, and loves getting to work with her family every day. Her warmth and kindness brings a sense of belonging to everyone she interacts with at the farm, where she is known as Doña Bertha or Tia Bertha, and she is family to us all.

Text and photo by Yerena Farms. Ferry Plaza, Saturday and Tuesday; Mission, Thursday.

Jose Alcarez, Brokaw Ranch Company

Jose has been with Brokaw Ranch Company since around 1980, and he is essential for a lot of reasons. He’s been with us since we planted our first 40 acres of avocados at our Santa Paula ranch, through numerous freezes and two wildfires, during a water dispute and our new water system development, and through our transition to an intensively farmed avocado farm. It’s nearly impossible to imagine him not standing watch over our whole operation.

Jose is curious and actively responds to the many challenges of our unique operation. He’s a natural leader and mentor, which explains his success in training contract crews in the art of specialized branch selection, pruning, and girdling, all within the confines of Chilean intensive avocado agricultural practices. 

What is evident is that avocado ranch development and management IS his life’s work. A wise man once told me, “When choosing a career, one shouldn’t strive to do what they love but rather what they’re good at.” Jose might actually love what he does, but there’s no dispute that he’s great at it. 

Jose has long been an important member of our family; he attended almost all of our weddings and my Dad’s funeral and has made multiple hospital visits through the years. He’s like a fellow soldier, whom we respect and trust implicitly, and who brings immense value to the table. We are grateful and humbled to be able to work with and call Jose a family friend.

Text and photo by Brokaw Ranch Company. Ferry Plaza, Saturday.

Taurino Alba, Star Route Farms

Taurino has been with Star Route Farms for 26 years. He has worked his way up from field crew to being our main tractor operator in charge of all our direct seeding, cultivation, and all field prep, as well as training of the next generation of tractoristas. Taurino is conscientious and meticulous, and is the perfect man for such an exacting role. 

He lives on the farm with his wife and son. We watched him go from being a young single guy to courting his wife (chocolate boxes from the farmers market came in handy there) to having a son, who has now grown up and graduated from high school. Taurino’s extended family have also worked on the farm, and some still do!

Beyond being excellent at his job, we also appreciate his great disposition and calmness when dealing with difficult situations. This is the one man we cannot do without.

Text and photo by Star Route Farms. Ferry Plaza, Saturday.

Jesus Martinez, Far West Fungi

Jesus has been working at Far West Fungi for close to 30 years. He started when he was 19 years old, worked in the laboratory for three years, and was then promoted to a fork-lift driver. He was later promoted to farm manager, which he has been ever since.

Jesus is essential because he is skilled in all areas of farm operations and is the first person who is called when there is a problem or something needs to be fixed. (Mushroom farming requires a lot of machinery!) He is also an important part of the production process and knows each part of the system inside and out. 

After all these years, Jesus loves growing mushrooms because they are so healthy, and he enjoys their flavor. He wants to encourage more people to try different types of mushrooms because they might be surprised at how much they enjoy them.

Text and photo by Far West Fungi. Ferry Plaza, Saturday.

Virgilio Carreon, Frog Hollow Farm

Virgilio—or Virgil, as Farmer Al Courchesne calls him—has worked at Frog Hollow Farm for 28 years. You might call him a jack-of-all-trades because of his wide skill set and list of responsibilities on the farm. His primary responsibility is to lead and manage his eight-person year-round Ground Team. From the spring throughout the fall, the Ground Team is busy keeping the trees irrigated and fertilized, and the cover crop cut in between orchard rows. In the winter, they continue to keep the weeds at bay, but their focus shifts to removing all the pruned branches from the 30,000 trees in the orchard and then converting those branches to wood chips to feed our compost, which will in turn act as fertilizer for the orchard. 

Virgilio is also Frog Hollow’s go-to guy to fix all things mechanical. He has an innate understanding of the workings of machinery and can figure out how to fix them when they break–an extremely valuable skill set on a farm!

Farmer Al describes Virgilio as responsible, observant, detail oriented, and energetic. He reminds Al of important operational priorities, and has an innate understanding of plants and how to make them thrive. His diverse skills and warm heart make him one of the key guys that we depend on for keeping the orchard a healthy and happy place. He is a family man with a wife and two boys, and his favorite Frog Hollow fruit is the Cal Red peach.

Text and photo by Frog Hollow Farm. Ferry Plaza, Saturday.

Rebeca and Rodolfo Jimenez, Green Thumb Organics

Farmer Rudy Jimenez’s parents, Rebeca and Rodolfo, migrated from Guanajuato, Mexico, and have both been instrumental in founding Green Thumb Organics in 2014. Rodolfo’s role is to manage the farm and oversee the planting processes of all crops for harvesting. Rodolfo is very creative in nature and has also worked in the farm agriculture business for more than 30 years. 

Rebeca is a farmer, entrepreneur, and co-founder of Green Thumb Organics Farms. She is currently part of the team that harvests daily crops, conducts sales to Spanish-speaking audiences, and provides demos from a holistic approach to self care. She has been instrumental in keeping the family together and providing guidance when needed. She is essential to the farm’s operations because she carries out the daily harvest and inventory at the farm’s sites. 

She started her own business of aloe vera self-care products, and recruited other women that work along with her. She has been connecting with her community for almost 30 years. She enjoys being outdoors, and working alongside and seeing her grandchild Romeo, daughter Beatriz, and son Rudy thrive at the farm business. 

Text and photos by Green Thumb Organics (Rebecca by JC Gonzalez and Rodolfo by Beatriz Jimenez). Ferry Plaza, Saturday and Tuesday.

Pablo and Miguel Duran, Tierra Vegetables

Pablo started working with Tierra Vegetables in 1997. He was friends with our first worker when both their families lived in Michoacán, Mexico. When he was very young, Pablo drove the oxen for planting corn. One of the reasons why we grow corn and make masa at Tierra Vegetables today is because Pablo came from generations of corn growers. 

Without Pablo, Tierra Vegetables wouldn’t be able to operate. No one knows the field, crops, irrigation, tractor work, and equipment like he does. With Pablo in charge of the fieldwork, we’re able to focus on other important parts of running the business, such as the books, marketing, CSA, farmstand, kitchen, and greenhouse.

Many of our employees have been Pablo‘s relatives. During the pandemic last year, Pablo‘s nephew, Miguel, lost his job at the restaurant and came back to the farm to work with us. Pablo‘s wife and daughter work with us in the kitchen.

Pablo turned 60 last year, and he still works 7 am to 5 pm in the field, pretty much year-round. What does Pablo like best? He said, “Everything–carrots, strawberries, tractor work, harvesting.” Typical Pablo answer. Miguel said he likes planting and learning new things. I think he enjoys working with his uncle as well.

Text and photo by Tierra Vegetables. Ferry Plaza, Saturday.

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