NSAC's Blog

Stories from the Field: Empowering Latino Farmers

April 18, 2016

Ontonio del Real, a graduate of the CAMPO internship, prepares the soil in his garden.

Despite a demonstrated track record of success in supporting innovative outreach, training, and technical assistance programs, the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Program (also known as “Section 2501”) remains severely underfunded. The 2014 Farm Bill cut funding for the program in half, while at the same time expanding the program’s user base to include the growing numbers of military veterans seeking assistance with transitioning into farming careers.

Since 1990, hundreds of community-based organizations and institutions have relied on this important source of grant funding to support their work expanding minority farmers’ access to critical USDA resources. Access to resources, which given the unique challenges minority, veteran, and underserved farmers often face, can oftentimes underpin the success of their farming operation.

An Education in Sustainable Agriculture

Ontoniel showing worms to participants

Participants in the Adelante Mujeres Sustainable Agriculture Program examine worms and learn about vermicomposting.

Adelante Mujeres is a non-profit organization based in Forest Grove, OR, that has used funding from Section 2501 to provide holistic education and empowerment opportunities to low-income Latino families in their community. The organization offers a variety of services, from Adult Education to Small Business Development, but their Sustainable Agriculture Program has been one of their most popular and successful offerings.

The Sustainable Agriculture Program, led by Alejandro Tecum, was started in 2005 with the goal of empowering and promoting small-scale, sustainable Latino farms and garden operations. Like many of the farmers he now serves, Tecum has agriculture in his blood. Though he spent his early years growing up on a small farm in Guatemala, Tecum was not always interested in pursuing agriculture as a career.

“Growing up, I decided not to do anything with farming,” said Tecum. “My parents had a few acres, but they farmed in a conventional way and I got fed up because every single year we had to till the land by hand.”

After graduating from a teaching college in Guatemala, Tecum immigrated to the United States in 1999, where he began teaching math and Spanish for the Adult Education Program at Adelante Mujeres, which helps women earn their GED. When Adelante Mujeres began launching the Sustainable Agriculture Program, Tecum contacted Will Newman of the Oregon Sustainable Agriculture Land Trust, who agreed to teach the sustainable agriculture courses. As the program grew, other instructors were added to the team and Tecum’s interest in agriculture was revitalized.

“At Adelante Mujeres, I am doing what I dreamed of doing years ago,” said Tecum. “There is a saying that goes ‘to teach you only have to know, but to educate you have to be.’ I now feel like I am what I teach when I teach about sustainable agriculture.”

As a part of the Sustainable Agriculture Program at Adelante Mujeres, Tecum teaches a 14-week sustainable agriculture course in Spanish. Participants learn sustainable farming methods and techniques to grow clean and healthy produce. The course, which averages between 25 to 30 farmers per cycle, emphasizes the importance of soil health, soil conservation, and the avoidance of chemical additives to protect the health of farmers, consumers, and the earth. Participants who successfully complete at least 80 percent of the series become members of the organization and are eligible to receive technical assistance, access to land, financial aid, entrepreneurial training, and community garden space.

2501 funding expands market opportunities for Latino farmers

Although Adelante Mujeres launched the Sustainable Agriculture Program in 2005, it wasn’t until 2009, when they received support from a 2501 grant, that the program really started to blossom.

“The first 2501 grant came at a key moment when we were seeking to expand the services we offered and the area we served,” said Tecum. “We were able to hire a second staff member, complete a needs-assessment survey of all the Latino farmers in the area, and develop a farmers’ resource manual.”

The community needs assessment gave Adelante Mujeres a better idea of the needs of the farmers they served. Adelante Mujeres quickly realized that one of the greatest challenges their farmers faced was in marketing their produce. Because many of the farmers that Tecum works with are still learning English, some of them find interacting with customers and handling transactions at farmer’s markets overwhelming when they first start farming.

To address that problem, Tecum and his colleague Karin, started Adelante Mujeres Distributor to function as a market outlet and training opportunity for the program’s Latino farmer participants. Currently, Adelante Mujeres Distributor buys produce from 15 farmers, including many women farmers, and sells it to local institutions, restaurants, schools, and small food businesses.

Adelante Mujeres Distributors also offers community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares to members of the local community. By combining the produce of many farmers together, Adelante Mujeres is able to offer an abundant and varied share to its customers. Their CSA program even allows members to add a subscription to a salsa share, which provides enough tomatoes, hot peppers, and herbs to make homemade salsa every week during the growing season.

“Many of our participants come here and sell to the distributor,” said Tecum. “If they are interested in selling to the distributor, we work with them to develop a business plan. The idea is not only to buy from them, but also to give them an educational opportunity if in the future they are going to grow their business. We want to help them understand how to deal with other clients.”

Strengthening partnerships

With the help of another 2501 grant in 2014, Adelante Mujeres was again able to increase their impact, this time by strengthening and expanding their work with community partners. Adelante Mujeres is a member of the Coalition for the Advancement of Latino Farmers (CALF). CALF is made up of four organizations in the Pacific Northwest: Adelante Mujeres, the Linfield Center for the Northwest, Huerto de la Familia and The Next Door/Raices. Adelante Mujeres works with these partners to support socially disadvantaged Latino farmers and increase the viability of their small-scale farming operations. Adelante Mujeres has also partnered with the Oregon State University Extension service, which helps them to provide agriculture workshops in Spanish.

Adelante Mujeres is also strengthening partnerships through “Capacitando a Agricultores del Mañana a través de Pasantías Orgánicas” (CAMPO), an internship program launched using support from their 2501 grant. The internship is focused on training tomorrow’s farmers through organic internships. With the 2501 funding they were able to hire three interns to work with an organic farmer in the area. One of the interns was so successful that he has since started his own farming operation and now sells to the Adelante Mujeres distributor.

“The internship is important because it allows people to learn by doing,” said Tecum. “One of the interns is now farming and sells to the distributor. He has gotten so good at it that now he helps me teach the sustainable agriculture class.”

Tecum emphasized the positive impact that 2501 has had on the Sustainable Agriculture Program at Adelante Mujeres.

“Without it, I don’t think we could have done it,” said Tecum. “If we didn’t have this grant, we couldn’t do what we do because we would only have one person working on this project. I help farmers with the production issues and Karin is really focused on the business side of things. She helps farmers with buying, marketing, finding clients. As a team we are able to give participants the knowledge of how to grow and how to market their produce.”

The success of the Sustainable Agriculture Program at Adelante Mujeres creates a positive ripple effect throughout Oregon’s Latino community. As a result of working with Adelante Mujeres, many of the farmers and gardeners who have participated in the sustainable agriculture program are now encouraging their families and friends to eat healthier.

“We are proud of how we are changing the eating habits of the Latino community,” said Tecum. “After 10 years of working with them, we are seeing changes in what they are eating. They eat more vegetables and come more to the farmers market. We have a nutrition program and we help people choose healthy foods. It is small things, but it is making a difference in their eating habits.”

NSAC fights for funding to support America’s underserved farmers and ranchers

For decades, 2501 has provided funding to community-based organizations and universities to help them reach out to and directly assist minority and socially disadvantaged farmers. Disregarding the important work the program does, in the 2014 Farm Bill Congress slashed the 2501’s funding in half, making it nearly impossible to meet the needs of our nation’s most underserved farmers.

Despite strong support for additional 2501 program funding from over 100 food and farm organizations, including NSAC, in this year’s budget negotiations the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee passed its funding bill with no added funding for the program.

Underinvestment in this program will ultimately shortchange our nation’s most vulnerable and chronically underserved farmers and ranchers, and will slow the pace of progress and subsequent success of these farming operations, and thus, American agriculture as a whole.

As the Congressional appropriations process unfolds, NSAC will continue to advocate for the $10 million in much-needed discretionary funds for the 2501 program, as requested by the Administration’s fiscal year 2017 budget request.

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers

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