How Family Farming Revitalizes Local Economies


If you’ve been shopping at Northern California Farmers’ Markets for several years, you may have noticed that the farmer demographics are slowly shifting and that the farmers selling produce are more ethnically and racially diverse than in past years. You may also notice that many of these farmers are Latino. Some of these newer farmers are graduates of a program called the Agricultural and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA).

A little background: The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 can be directly linked to immigration from Mexico to the United States.

Subsidized corn from the US flooded Mexican markets, forcing farmers to leave their farms in search of other opportunities.

Many rural farmers from corn producing states in Mexico migrated to urban centers and many others migrated to the United States to find work. Plenty of those former Mexican farmers ended up as low-paid, seasonal farm workers, with little hope for their family’s future.

The same agricultural system that benefited from newly opened markets benefited from the cheap labor that entered the US as a result of opening the markets. This is a fact that immigration critics rarely acknowledge and immigration reform must take into account.

But there is hope for a better future for some of these farm workers, and an opportunity for them to contribute to rural and overall economic development here in the states. ALBA is a farm incubator where farmworkers and aspiring farmers can grow their own crops on organic land in Monterey County, CA., and learn the skills they need to market those crops and, one day, start their own farms.

This is important for a sustainable, stable food system. We are losing family farms to development every day, farms are consolidating into larger operations further from urban centers, and the average age of farmers is increasing – just as consumers are beginning to see the value in buying locally produced foods .

ALBA farmers can not only provide consumers (and themselves) with more sources of locally grown, organic produce at reasonable prices, but an influx of new farm families may even help save the family farm.

But the ALBA program does much more than that. ALBA teaches farmers how to farm in a way that is better for the environment than conventional, petroleum-dependent farming. Situated on two parcels of organic land, with a total of 305 acres, ALBA provides economic opportunity while teaching ecological land management techniques, habitat restoration, and conservation.

And though many of the beginning farmers in the ALBA program do hail from Mexico – especially the rural states of Guanajuato, Guerrero, Jalisco, Michoacán and Oaxaca – some of the graduates of the program have come from Argentina, Armenia, Iran, Chile, El Salvador, and Vietnam. The program welcomes all undercapitalized beginning farmers.

Over the past 20 plus years, ALBA has graduated over 600 farming families from the program. About 100 of those families have left the incubator and have leased or purchased their own farms.

If you shop at Bay Area and Northern California farmers’ markets, you are likely to encounter an ALBA farmer or two. I especially appreciate the ALBA farmers I see at my weekly market stops (Avalos Organic Farm and Catalan Family Farm) because the farmers and their families are on-site selling their own crops, providing a more direct consumer to producer connection, quality is high, and the prices are very reasonable.

ALBA also does advocacy work to help rework the farm bill in a way that will benefit both eaters and small farmers, and also works with state legislators to increase food stamp recipient’s access to fresh food from farmers’ markets.

“Our work has helped catalyze more discussion and action around small business education and development. It needs to be recognized as an option right alongside expanding good employment options. The economic activities of farmers from ALBA have generated and supported a tripling of farmers’ markets in the past five years, and many more people are now able to access truly local, organic foods,” said Gary Peterson, Deputy Director, ALBA

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Images: Courtesy of ALBA

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.