As many of you know we have spent the past year working on starting a producer’s cooperative with several Latino-led farms and former Stone’s Throw owners Emily and Klaus, now of Whetstone Farm. The Latino-run farms are Agua Gorda Cooperative, La Familia Cooperative, and Cala Farms. Our group of five farms has worked with the Latino Economic Development Center to develop a 200-member CSA (and growing!), a distribution hub on the East Side of Saint Paul, and methods to communicate across a wide array of language and cultural differences.
Last Saturday we had a wonderful meeting in Long Prairie, Minnesota, where Agua Gorda Cooperative lives and farms. Jose Garcia, one of the farmers, also owns a grocery store in town. We met in the back of the store and discussed finances, logistics, improvements, and next year’s crop plan while a large pot of carnitas simmered in the back. Another major development is that we have decided to rename the producers coop from Stone’s Throw Ag. Coop to SHARED GROUND FARMERS COOPERATIVE. We feel that the name is much more democratic and representative of all of the members of the cooperative.
I am continually inspired by the work that this group of people continues to do and their motivations for developing a more just regional food system. Robin has been incredibly diligent in wrangling the farmers week after week, distributing restaurant and CSA shares, and focusing on the coop’s development. The LEDC continues to support the coop, including us in grants, sharing warehouse space, and advising us on business decisions. Both Agua Gorda and La Familia expanded their operations this year and will be growing increasingly diverse crops next year. Despite traveling long distances and working off-farm jobs, Agua Gorda and La Familia are able to deliver beautiful, fresh produce week after week to the Saint Paul warehouse. Amidst tumultuous travels, raising a newborn, and starting a new farm, the Whetstone farmers never cease to contribute with clear minds and cheery countenances. Rodrigo Cala of Cala Farms has served as a link among the LEDC, cooperative, and farmers working tirelessly on a wide range of tasks from farm advising to financial planning to serving as a voice for the coop. He recently gave a short interview for the coop newsletter that I wanted to share here. Enjoy reading these words from Rodrigo:
Describe how you started farming in Minnesota.
When we [my brother and I] started farming was because the quality of the produce from Mexican dishes. We tried to get squash and verdolaga, a mexican herb, for a speciality Mexican dish. We going to try to find this herb, we going to seven different Mexican grocery stores and finally we get some but it was really poor quality. On our way home I was talking with my brother and I say “you see the quality of the Mexican produce?” and I say, “why don’t we rent a small piece of land to grow produce just for us?”. I ask people and they say no, they won’t allow you to grow produce in the USA. One day I was working with a lady who help me pay my taxes. She works on a non-profit organization called “Homestretch”. So I was talking with her about my taxes and she start talking with me about the process to pay my taxes. So I was talking with her about my ideas and I was telling her that I want to buy a house and maybe we can buy some land. And she says “oh, there is a program in Stillwater called Minnesota Food Association”. She sent me there and the first thing is I get there and I didn’t know anything about organic productions. They say they had one rule, you have to grow organic. So I say OK and we started to grow with them.
Our first market was with Mexican markets. The first things we grow was mexican summer squash called “Tatuma”, squash blossom, and verdolaga. But the market was very bad because we don’t find any contract. Sometimes we go there with one box of produce, and then they say they want five cases and we bring five cases and they say “oh, we don’t want five cases”. It was very frustrating for me because I feel they don’t respect us. Then one day Minnesota Food Association ask us if we want to start growing peppers for Chipotle. I see the difference between working with Latino business and anglo business. The anglo business are more formal, you need to sign some contracts. But the hard thing was was we start with $25 per box of peppers. Then every year they pay lower and lower. Now they want to pay $11 per box. The first year we made $5,000 on bell peppers and we used that money to make a downpayment on a farm. I get the farm in 2008 and I certify one part of the farm, a quarter of the farm. Now all the farm is all certified organic. Our next customer was Co-op Partners in 2010.
Now we sell produce to the co-ops and our cooperative, Stone’s Throw.
Through the LEDC (Latino Economic Development Center) you worked with many other farmers in the cooperative, how did you work with them this season?
I help them with farm training, I help them if they have questions on productions, if they want to buy a tractor, if they want to improve the capacity of the operations. I help from the beginning to the end with them. I help them from farm planning to harvest planning to harvest production to ….I don’t know. There are many different questions. Sometimes they call me to know where they can get plastic, boxes, where they can get seeds. I help a lot. Even when we start working in the field, I’m working with them, not just watching them. I put my hands in the earth with them.
How does owning a farm business impact Latino Farmers in Minnesota?
The first thing that I see, I see the people how they can feel empowered. They don’t work for somebody else and right now the farms are small farms really. They don’t break even but they are in the process to doing that. But you can see on their faces how they can feel a difference. When I see people working for plenty of farm production, in dairies and meat plants, and they are just labor workers they don’t have any chance to succeed. I feel that with Agua Gorda Cooperative, I feel that with La Familia Cooperative. When I start working with new farmers, they have questions like how much money can I make? I can own the tractor? I can own the tools? And when they start working on that process I feel the confidence in them on this process. Even though they are really small farms, you can see the happiness of these people on their faces.
– – Rodrigo Cala, Cala Farms – –
As you or your friends ponder CSA membership over the winter, please contact us about purchasing a share through the co-op. This is an excellent way to support local, sustainable food and beginning farmers from diverse backgrounds. This coming year we will be working on achieving organic certification for each member farm and the cooperative, improving our produce, and working on infrastructure developments on each farm. Please stay tuned.