Only Organic has partnered with The Organic Center in interviewing organic farmers and farming organizations across the U.S. to highlight the ever-growing organic world. Today we are highlighting Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, ALBA.
Farm Organization Name: ALBA
Organization Interviewee: Nathan Harkleroad
Location: Salinas, CA
- Why did you choose to become an organic farmer?
Well, technically I’m not a farmer, but the organization where I work, ALBA, is growing the next generation of organic farmers! We primarily work with immigrant farmworkers who aspire for a better life by starting their own operations. We are really doing it – since 2001, over 150 new farms started!
I got involved in organic farming in my early 20s. A work visa in rural Scotland landed a job at a small, diversified organic farm doing CSA boxes. I fell in love with farming, the dirt, the idea of growing food, and the work felt so pure. I returned to CA and went back to school for agriculture at Cal Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, and worked at the student farm for 5 years. It was great to be able to apply my learning directly to my job. That is the best approach to learn farming!
I spent one semester doing an internship at a large organic farm. One day a week I worked alongside field workers harvesting and weeding. It was hard work and I learned a lot about the fieldworkers’ stories and struggles. After graduating from Cal Poly, those experiences helped lead me to ALBA where I’ve been for over 10 years.
- How long have you been farming organically?
15+ years. Note, I didn’t grow up on a farm and had no idea during my youth that I would be inspired by agriculture. I’ve come to learn how important it is for kids from all walks of life to get a chance to learn about agriculture. We need new farmers, after all.
- What variety of crops do you grow?
ALBA farmers grow a range of organic vegetable crops and strawberries, too. We are close enough to the Pacific Ocean to get its cooling effect with the fog line not being far off and cool northwest winds being funneled down the valley during spring and summer. This allows us to grow cool-season crops year-round. Celery is our most popular crop right now! We do get enough heat for tomatoes and hot peppers, thankfully!
- How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your farm?
For the most part, the farming side at ALBA has been doing just fine! There is a lot of demand for produce right now with people cooking at home and being health conscious. Our farmers have been more impacted with their personal lives, such as spouses or other family members being laid off their jobs. Childcare and access to healthcare are other pressing issues!
- What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as an organic farmer, or what do you think will be the biggest challenge in the future?
ALBA farmers struggle, like any small business, in taking their passion and turning it into a profitable enterprise. We have been working to help our farmers become more business-minded. Also, the market can change at any time and as a small farmer, you are often taking a bet on a small market window. Of course, the other issue is, as John Wayne said, ‘They ain’t making any new dirt.” Farmers struggle to get good parcels that are the right size for a small family operation.
- What do you love most about being an organic farmer?
For me, at ALBA it is about seeing people pursue their passion and transform their lives by being their own boss. Who better to be the next generation of farmers than those that are already working the land? Our participants come from farming backgrounds in Mexico and have been learning on the job in CA agriculture, sometimes for a couple of decades.
- What are you most optimistic about or what have you seen that gives you hope?
When I started at ALBA only 5% of Monterey County agriculture was organic. 10 years later and it is 25%! Can you believe that? I believe in incremental change and that is what we are seeing.
- Do you have a story you’d like to share from your farm?
‘ALBA’ means dawn in Spanish, which is really fitting. It is a place of new beginnings and a stepping stone for a better life through agriculture. So many amazing stories over the years!
One of our participants, Octavio, started ALBA’s Farmer Education Course when he was 16 with his brother. Both on the shy side, neither he nor his brother spoke English at the time. Octavio took the PEPA course, graduated, and began to farm at ALBA with his brother (Brothers Organic Farm). He quickly grew to be one of the best farmers at ALBA while also taking classes at the local community college. He then transferred to Fresno state (obviously, having become fluent in English) where he completed a degree in Plant Protection. It is amazing–he basically financed his education with his farming operation while also creating employment for his family. He is now a confident Pest Control Advisor in the Salinas Valley and, although he recently retired the farm, Octavio is doing great. He even comes to ALBA to advise farmers and do workshops.
- What’s the one thing you wish all consumers knew about organic food and farming?
You always hear about these nutrition studies where conventional and organic are practically the same. There is conflicting evidence on that, but we also need to think about the cost of environmental issues and–way too often overlooked—the people that are out there working the fields. They get exponentially more pesticide exposure than your average consumer.
- What advice would you give a younger generation of farmers that may be interested in becoming organic?
For any young person with an interest in ag: Go for it—immerse yourself in agriculture! Even if you don’t become a farmer, there are so many opportunities within the wider agriculture industry. Here in Salinas, there are well-paying jobs in farm management, food safety, mechanics, seeds and breeding, and so much more.
For young conventional farmers: Give organic a chance. Transition a small field and see the results for yourself. Organic farming has gone mainstream and there are many resources to help guide you.