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Fertilizer for future farmers

Training program gives would-be growers technical expertise and the marketing savvy to let them compete.

July 05, 2007|From the Associated Press

SALINAS, CALIF. — Hunched over rows of parsley, Maria Luz Reyes swiftly gathers, slices and binds the fragrant bunches. It looks like just another backbreaking task in the fields, but for Reyes, it's a dream job.

"I always wanted to do this again," said Reyes, who used to help run her father-in-law's ranch in her native Mexico. "If you've run a farm, and you love it, you always want to go back."

Through the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Assn., or ALBA, the former packing plant worker learned to run her own farm on leased land and overcome the hurdles facing small agricultural operations. Reyes recently purchased a 10-acre farm of her own, fulfilling a dream she'd nurtured since she moved to California 17 years ago.

Experts say programs such as ALBA's that bring new faces to agriculture are increasingly important as farmers are aging and bigger farms are pushing out small operations.

The average age of farmers is 56. About 90% of American farms are family-owned, but new generations can be hesitant to take over the business, according to a 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture survey.

ALBA's six-month intensive training program works like a small-farm incubator, giving would-be growers technical expertise and marketing savvy, and even leasing them land for a few years until they can buy their own.

Other programs working to bring new and minority farmers to the fields include Farms to Grow Inc., which supports ethnic minority small farmers, and California FarmLink, which connects retiring farm operators with aspiring farmers to keep the land in production.

When a program such as ALBA trains aspiring farmers, it has to teach them to deal with the challenges facing small operations, said Kristin Reynolds, program representative at the University of California's Small Farm Center.

The diversity of crops and the small yields produced make it difficult for small farmers to work with wholesalers interested in large shipments with a guaranteed delivery date, she said.

Farmers add that it's harder for a small producer to overcome a big unexpected loss. And they have to be jacks-of-all-trades. Reyes, for example, can get down among rows of strawberries to weed, then drop the sickle to balance financial books.

Through ALBA, Reyes has prospered. She learned how to farm organically and sell at a handful of farmers markets in the region -- niches where small farmers do particularly well.

"It's very hard to compete with large companies that can guarantee a large amount of product at a certain time, but we're making it work," she said.

Farmers are not the only ones to reap advantages from keeping small farms in operation. Small farms bring different values -- and veggies -- to the table, Reynolds said.

"They can be more diverse, have more wildlife, grow different varieties of food," Reynolds said.

Juan Perez, 23, who farms two of ALBA's 110 acres as a program graduate, runs a farm-to-consumer delivery system with his family. The direct marketing enables him to take advantage of the personal contact and produce variety he can offer his customers.

He also can experiment with crops that probably wouldn't be found on a larger farm. Among them is epazote, an herb used in Mexican cuisine that he believed would sell well among Monterey County's Hispanic population.

Judging by customer response, the small farmers coming out of ALBA's program seem to have figured out how to make the business work.

Francisco Serrano, who has taken courses at ALBA, sets up a stand outside Longwood Elementary School on Mondays to sell his produce to parents picking up their kids after school.

The school has taken advantage of Serrano's presence to teach kids about healthy eating, incorporating discussions about nutrition into the curriculum, says Elizabeth Beak, who runs the garden and the cooking classes.

Although school was out for the summer, Rupal Solomon and her fifth-grader returned this week for the chance to buy from Serrano.

"He's always excited about Mondays," Solomon said of her son as they inspected the strawberries. "And at the same time he's learning to eat well. What can be better than that?"

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