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Farm Laborers Get A Foothold With Their Own Organic Farms

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.

From www.opb.org:

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 three-acre strawberry farm from a cooperative 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 only lease this land at a subsidized rate 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.

“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 off-site. 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.

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