Immigrant brothers build their dreamby Ambar Espinoza, Minnesota Public Radio
In 2006, we told you the story of two immigrant farmers from Mexico who were learning about organic and sustainable agriculture. Two years later, the brothers now have their own vegetable farm.
St. Paul, Minn. — Under a solar-heated greenhouse bursting with the smell of fresh tomatoes, Juan Rodrigo Cala tightens the ropes on one of his vines.
This simple but tedious task is not new to him since he's been a farmer both in Mexico, his homeland, and here in the U.S. What is new is that he's now working on his very own farm.
Just a year ago, Cala and his brother Juan Carlos farmed at Wilder Forest northeast of St. Paul through a program with the Minnesota Food Association that allowed them to lease an acre of land. The New Immigrant Agriculture Program taught the brothers about farming issues ranging from health and safety and business management.
Cala says he comes from a background of conventional farming in Mexico, where there was little regulation or oversight on pesticides and herbicides. He says he learned a lot about organic agriculture.
"How to package produce, how to clean vegetables," Cala listed some of things they've learned. "You can't imagine how much we've learned because we knew an agricultural process [in Mexico] where you put the vegetables in a box, and maybe three or four days later the vegetables would get to the consumers. Here... it's fast, it's healthy."
After completing the three-year program, the brothers took a chance, and bought their own farm earlier this year on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border.
Juan Rodrigo says his vegetables are growing well. The three acres they're farming are also USDA-organic certified.
"We have two greenhouses," Juan Rodrigo said as he showed off their farm. "We have tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, that's really popular among people who love organic produce. We have radishes, we have bell peppers, winter squash, summer squash, broccoli. We have spinach over here, we have salad mix, we have cilantro, and I think that's all we have this year."
The two brothers also have full-time manufacturing jobs. So they work at least 40 hours in their regular jobs, and another 40 hours on their farm.
"It took us three years of hard work," Juan Rodrigo said. "We educated ourselves, we learned, we knocked on doors."
The Cala brothers are focusing first just on organic vegetables.
Each week, the Cala farm produces about 250 bunches each of spinach, cilantro and radishes. They also pick 20-30 boxes of bell peppers and the same amount of squash.
All of it goes to the Minnesota Food Association, which sells the produce to 380 households through its community sustained agriculture (CSA) program.
"Then next year, we'll have to get goats and maybe pigs," Juan Rodrigo said. "Right now we're taking classes to learn about the requirements for organic meat."
The food association's programs have grown in the last two years. Now the organization sells to five wholesale retailers, including Kowalski's and Chipotle.
In past years, the farmers were on their own once they finished the program, but now the organization helps them connect with new channels to sell their produce.
Glen Hill, executive director of the Minnesota Food Association says last year, farms would earn on average about $4,000. This year, at least two out of its' thirteen participating farms will average about $15,000.
"It's a big jump because of improved skills and they're able to balance their market options," Hill said. "There is a progression of growth."
According to Hill, for the first time, the farmers in the New Immigrant Agriculture Program are organic-certified and also certified for good agriculture and handling practice.
"These are the only immigrant farmers in the state of Minnesota, maybe in the nation that's certified in this manner for food safety," Hill said.
Back at the Cala farm, Juan Rodrigo says the more the two brothers learn, the more ambitious they become.
He says once they have a strong and stable production in organic vegetables and meat, the next long-term goal is to venture into hydroponics, where vegetables are grown in mineral water.
Cala says this is more than just an American dream, he says it's a reality he and his brother have been able to build from scratch.
- Morning Edition, 09/15/2008, 6:55 a.m.