They Told Her She Couldn’t Farm. She Proved Them Wrong.
December 18, 2019
By donating to CUESA, you are investing in farmers who are upholding your values, stewarding the land, contributing to a climate-wise future, caring for workers, and bringing nourishing food to our tables. And they need your support more than ever to thrive.
This month, we’re featuring change makers in our community who are part of a fair and regenerative future. Today, meet farmer Marsha Habib, who joined the CUESA farmers market community in 2016. Marsha founded Oya Organics seven years ago as a one-woman farming operation, overcoming many barriers in a farming landscape that can be hard for organic farmers, and young women farmers especially. Connecting with you—the CUESA community—through farmers markets and education programs has helped Marsha gain visibility and the stability to grow her farm.
Marsha shared what your support has meant to her as she cares for the land, her family, and employees, bringing nourishing food to market.
Growing up, I never thought I was going to start my own farm. My parents weren’t farmers. We lived in the Bay Area in a house with a tiny yard, so I didn’t have an entryway into farming.
But I have always really admired farmers. Going back, my grandparents were farmers in Japan, and we visited them when I was growing up, so that might have been where my love of farming started. It’s such an honest living to work the land, starting from soil and seed, and then to create food. It is such important work. The connection with the land and the tangible nature of the work is what really drew me in.
When I went to college I found myself volunteering on the student farm, and I gained the mentors who pointed me in the direction of studying sustainable agriculture. I eventually became an AmeriCorps volunteer, building gardens and doing food justice work in Silicon Valley. Then I started a one-acre farm in Hollister. By the time my AmeriCorps term ended, I had already gotten my hands dirty and caught the farming bug.
There were many challenges. When the one-acre sublease ended, I had to find land on my own. I didn’t have any capital to start with, so I was doing everything on a shoestring, without any support systems. I remember getting laughed at. People would look at me and say, “Oh, she’s crazy. She’s a woman, and she thinks she can farm? Shouldn’t she be married and having kids, or working inside an office, and not trying to work the land?” Receiving that negativity was a huge challenge.
Eventually I attracted a more supportive community, and other farmers saw my drive and helped me out. I met my boyfriend, Modesto, in Hollister and invited him to join me on the farm. We gradually grew our team, and acreage, and just went all in.
Growing organically in a marketplace that expects conventional, cosmetically perfect looking produce is another challenge. But farmers markets and direct sales are more forgiving because you can talk to people about why your kale leaves have a few holes and are not as huge as the ones in the store, and many people appreciate the trust gained when buying directly from the farmer.
That’s why we were thrilled to get a spot at CUESA’s farmers market. The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is one of the most famous markets, and so we knew it would help us to make connections with some of the restaurants and buyers that come through. The exposure we get is great for both our morale and our actual sales.
Being a part of CUESA has allowed us to feel that our work is valued, and customers appreciate that our farming practices are good for the land, the environment, and the health of consumers and field workers. In a lot of other channels in the food system, the farmer is at the very bottom. But at CUESA’s farmers market in particular, a chef at a renowned restaurant may show up at our stand and say, “Your Little Gem lettuces are beautiful. I want to take everything that you have, and feature you on the menu.” That’s just a completely different relationship.
I’ve also been able to share my story with people through CUESA’s talks. It’s rare to have a farmer or a group of farmers up on a panel, in front of a room full of urban people who don’t have much contact with rural areas. When people hear directly from farmers about our perspectives and the issues we face, and ask us questions, it helps bridge the disconnect.
Social justice is a large part of what drives me in this work, and wanting to do my part. It is needed in so many layers of the food system, especially for the workers in the fields. I try to put myself on the same level as my employees in how I operate the farm, so that everyone feels ownership and dignity in the work they do, and I offer the benefits I can. I think it’s really affecting our workers’ lives, allowing them to save their extra money and invest it where they want.
The best way you can support farmers like me is by buying and eating more of your food directly from farms at the farmers market, by joining a true CSA program directly from a local farm, or by purchasing from other places that support positive relationships with producers. That support is our living. It means we have a business, it means we have income. It’s directly supporting our livelihoods and our employees. And it’s eliminating anonymity and cutting out middle men within the food system where shady economic transactions and E. coli outbreaks too often occur.
When you have direct relationships with farmers, it’s just healthier. It’s fresher. It’s honest. There’s more integrity, which benefits everyone.
Marsha depends on community members like you so that she can do the important work of farming. Ensure that the next generation of farmers can thrive by donating to CUESA today.