Adelante Mujeres is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that creates educational, social and economic opportunity for the low-income Latino population of Washington County, Oregon. Since 2005, their agriculture program, Adelante Agricultura, has trained aspiring Latino farmers in small-scale organic farming practices. Adelante Agricultura aims to expand the capacity and success rate of Latino farmers and prove that organic farming can be a viable and rewarding career.
Tell me a little bit the Sustainable Agriculture Program.
The sustainable Agriculture Program of Adelante Mujeres provides aspiring Latino immigrant farmers with the training and skills necessary to grow vegetables so that they can eat healthy and to successfully market their products. It started 10 years ago and since then we are providing trainings to Spanish speaking people about how to grow vegetables using sustainable techniques.
We have an annual 12-week farming course, in which we cover several themes like: soil building, cover crops, pest, weed and disease management, water conservation, compost, etc. participants who attend 80% of the course become members and are invited to several workshops and other events related to agriculture. This year, we were lucky to get a grant from Rodale to start our internship project (CAMPO) which allows one of the program’s participants to get hands-on experience in a local farm.
Jesse: CAMPO, is a project that’s kind of an extension of our farming training program. We’ve offered the classes for ten years now, but now we’re offering the opportunity for a hardworking and interested student to get experience on a farm. Our intern, Álvaro, works on the farm now as an intern and is learning practical skills now that he’s completed the farming class. He’s been coming out and learning all of the skills that are concordant with what we’re undertaking out there based on the needs for seasons. He started in the greenhouse with transplant planting, direct seeding, maintenance work and weeding, and now he’s using agricultural fabric to cover crops and lying plastic on the ground for warmth – all techniques he hadn’t used in the past. This is the first year that we’re offering the internship, so Álvaro is our first student, but we hope to expand it in the future. For this year, he’s the pilot.
Álvaro is also farming on his own simultaneously, so as soon as he learns something, he goes home and applies it to his own farm. He can decide which knowledge to use and add in different ideas of his own. It’s a constant discussion and it’s valuable for him to be able to compare different ways of doing things. Through our agriculture program, we operate a distributor who buys from Latino farmers who are members of the program and sells to restaurants in the area. That makes it even more rewarding, I think, for our intern to be able to learn farming skills and sell produce at the same time. That way he’s not just getting the skills to grow things, but to sell them to people who are really excited to eat them.
Why did you choose to offer a farming program?
Alejandro: At the end of 2004, one of the members of the former steering committee of the Forest Grove Farmers’ Market came to us and offered us the opportunity to restart the Market. Because most of the Adelante Mujeres participants’ husbands have agricultural background, we saw on this a really good opportunity to involve them in the community doing something they enjoy. When we communicate this idea to them they expressed their desire to participate but they needed training about how to grow vegetables here in Oregon and also how to grow them without chemicals. That is how we started the Agriculture program to teach farming techniques to grow food for selling at the market. Also, nutrition is one of Adelante Mujeres’ priorities so teaching people how to grow their own food is a way to improve their health. Since 2005 we started teaching classes about how to grow vegetables using sustainable techniques, and now we have a whole program that: provides technical assistance to Latinos who own small farming businesses, buys part of their products through Adelante Mujeres Distributor, and gives access to land through community gardens.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced starting the program? And how did you overcome them?
Alejandro: at the beginning, the hardest part was finding a place for the participants of the class to practice what they were learning. We’re in a city, so it was a little difficult to find a space suitable for farming. Since the participants were eager to start using the farming techniques, we started looking for a space to farm. It was through a partnership with other organizations that we found the right place. We started with less than half of an acre, but it was enough; in it, our first participants stared practicing the organic techniques that we were teaching them.
What has been the most rewarding part of starting the program?
Alejandro: There are many! One of the most rewarding parts is when I go to the participants farms or to the community gardens and see people there growing vegetables, especially the beginners who have never planted anything but now are doing really well and feel proud of doing it. On the business side, seeing them selling quality food at Farmers’ markets, restaurants or to our distributor is really satisfying. We can see the difference we have made in the lives of people. For example, there are two farmers who started with us in 2005 and are now independent. They don’t have other jobs because they live out of their farm business now. That’s really rewarding to see.
Alejandro: I am from Guatemala and worked on a farm, but it was a conventional one. In 1999, I took a class about ecology and I learned about the damage we were doing to ourselves and the environment. After that, I stopped farming until I moved to the US. Here I started a garden at my house. Then I started working at Adelante Mujeres. One of the core values of this organization is to love and respect the earth, so the Sustainable Agriculture Program was one way of living this value because by growing food without chemicals we don’t harming it.
Also, we need to eat healthy. As you know, there are many studies that show us the damage that chemicals are doing to our bodies so we don’t want to keep doing that. Adelante Mujeres is focused on well-being so we are teaching our participants that what we eat is really important to keep us healthy, and one way of having access to healthy food is growing it ourselves and knowing the right way to grow it is key. We know the damage that chemicals are doing to the environment, too. We know that waters are contaminated and the air is polluted because of conventional agriculture, and we don’t want to keep doing that. Also, more and more people are aware of their eating habits and want to eat healthy. This is an opportunity for our famers to reach that market with organic produce. I think a lot of people are buying from our farmers because they know they are using organic methods. I have taught a class in the adult education program here at Adelante Mujeres and I’ve seen the change in the women. Some of them had never eaten vegetables, but they’ve changed their diets. I take them to the garden and I start eating vegetables there and they say “Do you eat that!?” after a while, they’re eating those same things. It seems really small change, but in the long term, it makes a difference because they’re changing the habits of their whole families.
In the internship program, part of what we do on the farm with Álvaro is cook lunch every day with only things from the farm. Because of that, he’s become really interested in cooking. He has mentioned several times that his family hadn’t eaten many vegetables in the past, but he’s getting better at convincing them to eat vegetables with him now that he knows how to prepare them and cook them for everyone. So it’s not just the farming experience, it’s those other positive personal effects as well. – Jesse.
Alejandro: This is really surprising to me because one of the questions we asked in the interview for this position was: do you cook? Álvaro clearly sad he didn’t cook and that he didn’t like to cook either. So this is proof that having a participant in the farm is a life changing experience.
What are the biggest issues facing farmers today?
Alejandro: Locally, access to land. After our participants graduate from the agricultural class, they are faced with the difficulty of finding a place to farm. There are several farm owners who want to lease or share their land with them, but in organic farming, that doesn’t make sense. You have to build the soil and that can take years. In one year, you can’t really do anything valuable, so people get discouraged. Also, the advancement of GMOs is threatening small organic farmers. I’ve heard famers talk about that and it’s scary.
Jesse: One of the major challenges in the past was that it takes a whole lot of hands-on experience to learn how to be a successful organic farmer. People who want to get into it can get a decent amount, but to be able to have a whole season to practice helps persuade someone to not only farm or garden as a hobby, but to consider taking it as part-time income or a career. It takes a lot of hands-on experience to make someone want to go ahead and make it a full-time career.
What do you think is the most hopeful or exciting thing happening in the organic food and farming community right now?
Jesse: It’s exciting to see more and more people show up to take the class. This year, it was hard to choose just one intern. During the application and interview process, we interviewed four people and after meeting them, we knew they all could’ve been great choices. There’s so much momentum moving in this direction and people are taking interest in our program and wanting to continue. They really want to take organic farming and do something serious and professional with it.
Alejandro: We are in a time when people are realizing that organic is the only real option if you want to have healthy food and to improve your well-being. At the beginning, the agricultural classes were taken most of all for people with limited education or no education, but now we have participants who have college degrees. Participants have expressed so much interest now because they know how much damage is being done by conventional farming. When I do farm visits, I can see the changes people have experienced. Our intern is always telling us how much he is learning and how he is really convinced that what he is doing is the right thing to do.
What made you apply for the Your 2 Cents grant and how do you see it helping your business?
Alejandro: After the classes, people gain a lot of knowledge, but they need hands-on experience and practice. In 2008, we knew we wanted to do something like this. The idea was to give the participants of our program the opportunity to learn and put into practice what they learned on a real farm. We have a community garden, but I think that’s different from being an employee on a farm. Now, our intern is getting some money for his work and that’s a really necessary thing. They need money to survive and also they are enthusiastic of learning valuable farming skills so, the opportunity to get some money while improving their skills is just the best thing.
What is one tool you couldn’t live without?
Alejandro: Money – money to have the possibility of expanding and giving participants the opportunity to get hands-on experience and maybe even find a space of our own where they can do that.
Jesse: The participants themselves. The most important thing is having momentum in the right direction and if we continue that momentum and offer this project to more people and have them participate on farms and as interns, we could continue to grow the program with the demand. We could even specify it based on the interests of farmers and farms.