Program gives workers seeds for success

Farm workers in California

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Working your way up the corporate ladder's never easy. It's even harder when you start in the dirt. Actual dirt, I mean.

Farm workers usually start and end their careers in the same kind of job — doing back-breaking work for somebody else. A training program in Salinas, California's trying to change that, as Rachael McDonald reports.


Rachael McDonald: Florentino Collazo steps off a tractor on a windy afternoon. He's been turning over organic alfalfa that was put in last winter.

He learned organic farming methods here at the Agriculture and Land Based Training Association, or ALBA. When he first came 12 years ago, he'd spent a decade cutting and packing lettuce in the fields of Salinas. Now, he's ALBA's farm manager.

Florentino Collazo: I like the farm. I teach other farmers, other laborers to become with this program.

But maybe not for long. Collazo and his wife Maria have decided to set up on their own.

Collazo: It's American dream to get a piece of land. It's not easy, it's hard, because the loans now are difficult to get.

The Collazos did get a loan from the California Coastal Rural Development Corporation. That, along with financing from the previous owner and their own savings, added up to $250,000. It was enough to buy 10 acres of farmland about 70 miles south of the ALBA farm.

Collazo: Absolutely changed my life.

Collazo is not the only ALBA success story. Sixteen more farmers graduated from the small farming course this spring. Six of them are starting their own farms.

ALBA director Gary Peterson says that's a goal: to help bring farm-workers out of poverty. Move them from the role of laborer to farmer.

Gary Peterson: When we're talking about a context where farm-workers typically earn less than $20,000 a year in this region and throughout California. When you're presenting an opportunity for people to earn a gross income of more than $10,000 per acre, it becomes a pretty significant opportunity.

Peterson says the key with small farming operations is to find direct marketing opportunities, to cut out the number of middlemen between farmer and consumer. ALBA farmers sell organic produce to a number of area restaurants and businesses.

Like the Asilomar Conference Center in nearby Pacific Grove, Calif. In the kitchen, a cook chops organic yellow squash for the evening meal.

Chef Colin Moody says he was inspired to buy produce from ALBA after a recent organic farming conference. He says he gets almost half his fruits and vegetables from ALBA farms.

Colin Moody: I've always thought what you put into the food is what you get out of it. And it all starts with the farmer and how they're caring for their product and what goes into it. And what they feel about it I mean it's a genuine excitement. When you get excited about food, that shows in the food and that translates to the customer.

Moody says working with ALBA has changed the way he plans his menus. Now, he creates dishes based on what's available locally. And, he says, the prices for ALBA's local veggies are often lower than those at his usual distributor in San Francisco.

ALBA is also trying to get its organic veggies to low-income families. It has a farm stand at Sacred Heart Church in Salinas.

On Sunday mornings, churchgoers can pick up organic vegetables after mass. Seller Alex Sancen:

Alex Sancen: Everything is delicious. Everything is fresh and everything is organic.

Back at ALBA, savvy farmer Florentino Collazo says he's planning to grow fruits that are harder to find in the cool coastal areas, like peaches and pomegranates.

Collazo: Many at farmers market in this area wanted the fruits. We got the people always asking about that. "Oh, where is a peach?"

Collazo hasn't planted anything yet. He's still cleaning up his new farmland. It's hard work, but he's used to that. And in future, like other successful graduates of the ALBA Course, he'll reap the profits himself.

In Salinas, Calif., I'm Rachael McDonald for Marketplace.

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