Organic roots: From the rancho to the market
on March 10, 2009
By Diana Montaño/Oakland North
The tropical crops of Maria Inés Catalán’s youth don’t grow in Hollister. Instead of winding through the papaya and mango trees of her native Guerrero, Mexico, here, wearing black loafers caked in mud from the past week’s rain, she steps carefully over the kale, broccoli and artichoke plants that thrive in the Northern California winter.
Catalán stops mid-field, spotting something hidden in one of the plants.
“Mira!” she says excitedly. “Look!” When she smiles her round sun-chapped cheeks seem to grow, and her already slanted eyes become thin lines on her face. Her brown hair is streaked with a mix of grey and orange-yellow strands.
Brushing the plant leaves aside, she cups an artichoke gently in her hand and holds it proudly for all to see. It is huge, almost the size of her palm, and the green is stained with a light, washed-out purple.
“Qué chulada,” she says, almost to herself. What a beauty.
Catalán Family Farms, which María Inés Catalán owns, lies in a flat stretch of land surrounded by emerald green hills between the Silicon and Central Valleys. Once a farm worker, Catalán became one of the first Latina immigrant organic farmers in the country when she started fifteen years ago.
Today she sells her produce at farmers’ markets throughout the Bay Area, including three in Berkeley and one in the Temescal neighborhood in North Oakland. While the term “organic” often carries with it a highbrow, not to say high price, connotation, Catalán also sells at wholesale price to Farm Fresh Choice, a Berkeley-based food justice project that works to make organic produce accessible to low-income communities of color. Just as her desire to make healthy eating an option for the surrounding Latino community comes from her own experience as an immigrant, so her decision to go organic had more to do with her personal history with the land, than with pure business sense.
Standing in her Berkeley Farmer’s Market stall, wearing a black apron decorated with small embroidered vegetables, Catalán rapidly weighs heads of lettuce and bunches of celery, tells the customer the price in a rough but matter-of-fact English, and gives them their change with a gentle “Thank You.”
And she really is grateful. People are buying less than they used to before the economy went sour. “They used to buy two bunches of chard,” she says, “and now they buy only one, because they’re afraid of being left with no money.”
Small mounds of vegetables are spread out in front of her, and behind her hang two papers, both declaring her produce to be certified Organic. She points to them with a shake of the head, recalling how difficult it was to get the certification when she first started. There were so many forms, most in English, and it was dizzying to maneuver through the various agencies and departments in charge of the process.
But what angers her the most, as she tells it, is that once she did get certified and started selling at the markets, other vendors gave her a hard time. These fellow farmers, always white Americans, would come up to her stand and inspect her produce. “They would ask me if I grew it,” she says, “or if it was really organic, like they didn’t believe me.”
A funny question, since Catalán’s background is firmly rooted in the concept of organic farming. “It’s called organic certification here in the US,” she says, “but for us in Mexico, it’s traditional agriculture. My grandparents grew organic. Simply because of our culture we are organic farmers.” The only difference, she says, is that in the US, “there’s regulations and politics to certify a ranch, to work in what you want to do, like to do, and are used to doing.”
But when Catalán migrated to California, this traditional agriculture was lost to her, and for years she labored in the pesticide-laden broccoli and strawberries fields of Monterrey County. She remembers it as painstaking, dehumanizing work. “They use you like a machine,” she says. “They tell you to fill…one box a minute, or 60 boxes of broccoli per hour. And by paying you a wage, they know how much they are going to produce per day or per hour.”
Catalán partly attributes her current farming to a need for healthier work. “And as I learned that being an organic farmer was about about taking care of our environment, our air, soil, our water,” she says, “I made the decision to farm organic.”
Recalling childhood moments of running with goats and playing in piles of harvested peanuts on her father’s farm, Catalán says that even as a farm worker she dreamt of someday owning a farm where her grandchildren could grow up as she did.
“A lot of people told me I was crazy. They said, ‘We are in the United States, and being able to own your own farm and be your own boss and do what you like to do because of tradition is impossible.'”
Now, Catalan’s six grandchildren are growing up on a farm as she once dreamt, even if, in the end, they decide they don’t want to be farmers, themselves. “As they grow they are learning to love the land and to produce their own food, which is the most important thing,” she says proudly.
“It’s a man’s world, agriculture,” says Catalán, nibbling on a bright yellow mustard flower as she trudges through the muddy rows. “Usually the man is in front, and the woman is behind,” she says, “But here, I’m in front and my husband is behind!” she lets out a hearty laugh and looks back. “What do you think, viejo?” she calls out to her husband Javier, whom she always refers to as her “old man.” He is following close behind with one of Catalán’s grandsons; he smiles and shrugs, unbothered.
Fifteen years ago, Catalán took part in three-year long Small Farmer Education training offered by the Agricultural and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), which trains low-income farmers-many of them Spanish-speaking former farm workers-to grow and market organic produce. She was the only woman in the course, and her fellow farmers refused to take her seriously, especially when it came to learning how to operate heavy farm machinery. They would laugh and tell her that she should be at home taking care of her husband.
“They respect her now,” says her son Juan, “because they know that she is helping everyone.” Juan, whom Catalán brought from Mexico with his three siblings when he was seven years old, used to work el fil-the field-with his mother as a young boy. Now, he helps her run the farm. At one point when she is not around, he proudly shows off a leather-bound “Certificate of Appreciation” awarded to his mother by the Department of Agriculture in recognition of her work for Latino farmers. He points to the gold seal with his finger, as though to highlight the official nature of her work.
Catalán is, after all, founder and current president of Pequeños Agricultores de California (Small Farmers of California), an organization of Latino organic farmers mainly concentrated in San Benito County. She is also the organization’s only female member.
On this day, Catalán is in a hurry to get to an 11 o’clock meeting with another organization to discuss the lack of access to financial resources that Latino organic farmers have. The organization works almost as a cooperative, although she doesn’t use those terms. Farmers grow their crops and mutually help each other commercialize their product. In the past, Catalán has given other farmers small interest-free loans, and she regularly helps new farmers maneuver through the complicated organic certification process she herself struggled with years ago.
And farming continues to be a struggle. Although the Catalán’s business is staying afloat, this year-during what has been referred to as California’s most severe drought in history-seems particularly daunting. The farm might not get any irrigation water from the municipal reservoir, because the state’s priority is supplying the cities first. There is even talk that the county may start to charge for using local well water. Many farmers in the north, says Catalán, have decided not to even plant this season.
“But if nothing gets planted and there is no alternative, there won´t be any food,” she says, her voice mixture of anger and despair. “That’s what they don’t see.”
Last week’s rain has helped the crops, but not so much Catalán’s market sales. Fewer people come to farmers’ markets when it rains. And there’s another economic issue: the high cost of labor. Catalán reaches into the middle of the lettuce crop and pulls out a handful of weeds-if this was a “conventional” farm, she says, there wouldn’t be any weeds because of the chemicals used on the plants. But in organic farming, the only way to get rid of the weeds is to pull them out by hand; because of that, she estimates that out of the $30,000 it takes for her to maintain the farm each month, about $20,000 of that goes to the contractor who hires the laborers.
Though happier as a farmer than as a farm worker, Catalán has yet to own the land on which she farms. She leases it, paying $5,100 a month in rent, with the option to buy. Without any outside financing, buying land is a difficult goal to attain, but for Catalán, it’s something she is working towards.
“Imagine if it was like Zapata said,” she says, referring to the Mexican revolutionary who fought for land reform in the early 20th Century, “and the land belonged to those who worked it.”
Amidst the early morning garble of chickens and cows and the neighing of horses, Catalán lets out a squeal.
“Está naciendo!” “It’s being born!” She gasps and points to a goat standing perfectly still inside a pen, with what looks like a lump of slime drooping from between its legs. “Viejo!” she calls out to her husband. “Está naciendo!”
“I always get nervous,” she says, wringing her hands. “Sometimes the babies get trampled on by the mother and die.” In one quick second the slimy pouch drops onto the hay, red liquid gushing out after it, and the baby goat squirms for a few minutes before attempting to wobble on its still-weak legs.
Catalán sighs in relief. It’s as though she’s never seen a goat being born before, but in the same pen there are eleven other kids, along with eighteen adults.
She hopes to certify them as organically raised, so she can sell the meat to restaurants. She already sells produce to a handful of restaurants in San Francisco and the East Bay, in addition to selling through Community Supported Agriculture programs in Monterrey. These new endeavors, she says, are the only way to keep the farm running in hard times.
Later that day, she returns to the barn area to check in on the newborn goat. It’s standing now, stumbling to find its mother’s teat. The anxiety that the kid will get trampled comes back for a minute; Catalán presses her husband to take the two goats out of the pen, so the baby isn’t in danger. He disappears and comes back with an old towel.
“I´ll do it,” says Catalan, grabbing the towel and briskly walking into the pen. She gently scoops the kid up in the blanket and lays it outside. They tie the mother to a post next to it. She calms down again.
Dame un cigarro, she says bluntly, putting out her palm. “Give me a cigarette.” No “please,” no “Thank you.” Her husband pulls out a pack of Marlboro reds and hands her one along with a lighter.
Catalán props herself onto a plastic barrel, the blue of her fleece sweater almost blending into the pale blue of the sky, the fields rolling back behind her. She hides the hand holding the cigarette behind the barrel so the smoke doesn’t blow in anyone else’s face. Her legs dangle, crossed at the ankles, and in between deep drags of her cigarette she begins to talk dreams: Of starting a commercial kitchen, as she calls it, where members of the Small Farmers of California would be able to jar or pickle their produce in order to preserve and sell it. Of letting the chickens lay eggs wherever they want so there will be 800 chickens and she can start selling organic eggs. Of inseminating a cow with world-renowned Japanese bull semen so she can sell organic beef. Of expanding her crops to include more Mexican produce – nopal cactus and different varieties of chiles that she can dry. Of homemade salsas she can sell at the farmers’ markets.
The problem, she says, pushing her finger into the air and moving her entire body forward to make the point, is that there are no resources to help already established organic farmers expand in this way. Although there are organizations that help them get started, such as the one that helped her fifteen years ago, there is nothing to help them “take it farther.” This, she explains, is what her meeting will be about later today.
Which reminds her that she has to get moving.
“I think I was a queen in a past life,” she says with a grin in between smokey breaths, “Just that this time I was born poor.” She belts out a laugh and turns to her husband.
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