Here's How to Grow New Farmers

Seasonal farm workers spend their years following the harvest. A farm worker may travel back and forth between Mexico and California, or New York and Florida, in response to changing seasons and the harvesting requirements of crops. With no job security or health insurance, and meager paychecks, many farm laborers have only known a life of backbreaking work, and often have little hope for change. However, thanks to a program in Monterey County, California, some laborers are finding a new beginning.  

A cooperative called ALBA Organics (no relation to the skincare company Alba Botanica; in this case, "ALBA" is short for "Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association"), is now providing educational and business opportunities for laborers who are aspiring organic farmers. ALBA offers farm workers the opportunity to learn about organic farm production, marketing, record keeping, labor laws, pest management, and other topics, to help them build and operate small farm businesses. With an eye toward a more just and sustainable food system, the program's goal is to provide farmers with economic stability and social equity. The result is often something most farmers have only ever dreamed of: becoming their own bosses.

In addition to providing help with things like fertilizer and irrigation tools, ALBA leases land to farmers for a few years at a subsidized rate. With two farms covering a total of over 300 acres, ALBA can teach farmers about business practices and environmental sensitivity both in the classroom and on the field. Farmers manage their own land and hire their own staff. When they have crop ready to sell, ALBA buys their produce and then sells it to a local grocery store, providing a secure market. And at the end of the farmers' tenure with ALBA, the cooperative helps transition them to other locations.

Though many farmers are content to leave their foreman behind, and be empowered to work for themselves, ALBA’s program can sometimes be risky. Without the economic security of a steady paycheck, language barriers and the high price of land become greater obstacles. On top of that, ALBA farmers often have little to fall back on if they become injured or their crops fail. Gail Wadsworth, executive director at the California Institute for Rural Studies, told NPR that even though agricultural work is always physically demanding, farmers take on much greater risk by owning their own land or business. Seasonal labor is “one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States,” said Wadsworth, but unlike ALBA’s program, when farm workers sign up for seasonal jobs, they're “not risking everything that [they] own.”

Risk notwithstanding, many farmers have jumped at the opportunity to join ALBA's program, and pursue their dream. “I want to be my own boss," 23-year-old aspiring farmer Octavio Garcia told NPR. "And when I came from Mexico, I came with the idea of doing something better.”