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The farmers and the feds
Immigrant strawberry farmers find a powerful ally in a federal agency with Dust Bowl roots

Date: 02/06/2008

Out standing in his field:
Santa Maria strawberry grower Mario Martinez is a success story thanks to favorable weather, his own work ethic, and help from Adriana Morales and the Cachuma Resource Conservation District.
In 2005 on Betteravia Road east of Highway 101, Dawn Afman pulled over and stopped as she stared at a field of spindly, discolored strawberries.

Afman, a Cal Poly soil science graduate, was driving a white pickup. Both doors bore a U.S. Department of Agriculture logo that sometimes sends the workers in the strawberry fields fleeing.

Adriana Morales, a biologist from Colombia, was riding shotgun. She addressed grower Mario Martinez. In Spanish, she asked, "Are you having trouble with your plants?"

Martinez didn't run. Nor did he bluster or deny. He simply replied, "SÃ." He had confidence in the government logo, he explained later.

Thus began a relationship promising survival for Martinez and hundreds of other small-time immigrant growers--and for the agencies serving them.

In 2007, two years after Afman and Morales drove up, Martinez produced 5,000 boxes per acre--his best year ever. Then, in November, one of Martinez's grower friends, Jesus Castillo, received the Outstanding Achievement Award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Morales is a biologist with the local Cachuma Resource Conservation District (RCD). Afman works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS).

Despite the programs' track records dating back to the Dust Bowl, when RCDs and the conservation service helped farmers replant Oklahoma, Martinez had never heard of them. They had sunk below the public radar.

But now their work in Santa Maria is creating new recognition and success in coming to the aid, once again, of struggling small farmers.

Martinez's success story

Martinez, 46, carries no university credential in agriculture, only a high school degree and a robust work ethic.

He came to Santa Maria from Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo, in central Mexico in 1985. Two older brothers were already here. Back home, he worked for his father, farming beans, corn, and alfalfa on 15 acres. There was no irrigation.

"If there was water there, I'd go back," he joked.

But here, he could earn $600 a week, a generous paycheck compared to the $80 he might make in Ixmiquilpan (Ish-me-KEEL-pan).

In Santa Maria, he started out as a field laborer before he found a steady job.

"I helped a man for 10 years," he recalled. In 2000, he started his own business on five acres rented from his boss.

He joined an estimated 250 small growers in the Santa Maria Valley. They average 20 acres apiece. Most grow strawberries. Virtually none is university-trained. Some entered the work force before finishing grade school.

Their business experience is as limited as their training in agriculture. For some, Spanish is a second language after an Indian tongue. Their failure rate is daunting, but collectively they produce perhaps as much as a quarter of the Santa Maria Valley's strawberries. A few have even graduated to prosperity.

"My second year, I had eight acres," Martinez said, smiling proudly as he gazed at his plants in their neat, raised rows. "Another man had 17, but we had the same production." His smile beamed a kilowatt brighter.

But back in 2005, the year Afman and Morales found him, he was in trouble. And he knew it. With a wife and three kids, he could soon be back doing stoop labor for somebody else.

Though untrained, he was open to new ideas. With the flexible mind of a scientist, he covered half his crop last year in traditional clear plastic and half in black. There was no difference in production or in disease, but there was a lot less weeding, so this year he used all black.

From the beginning, he planted three varieties of strawberries.

"We never plant just one variety, because we never know which will have problems," he explained. "I approach it like Socrates: I don't know anything."

Today, while many others have gone bankrupt, Martinez farms 19 acres. He employs 30 people.

His 2007 production of 5,000 boxes per acre represented a 67 percent increase over his customary 3,000. He attributes his success to the weather gods, to hard work and his own green thumb, and to Morales.

"After being here for a while, we know the good land," Martinez said. "Then Adriana comes with her soil analysis."

Sowing the seeds of trust

Biology to the rescue:
Biologist Adriana Morales, pictured here in a USDA lab, specializes in soils, and has helped Santa Maria farmers get maximum efficiency from their land.
The interaction between the growers and their federal advisors is a delicate dance. The USDA and RCD have no regulation authority. They can be tossed off a grower's property like any summertime squatter. Only after building a relationship of trust can their new ideas bear fruit. Morales of the Cachuma RCD has earned that trust.

Morales received a biology degree in her native Colombia in 1989. Before graduating, she began work on the Caribbean coast with native fishermen. A one-year assignment stretched into five years.

Then she spent three years with more fishermen in southern Brazil while she earned a master's degree in marine biology. She earned a second master's degree in Scotland, where she studied salmon and trout.


"A marine biologist. Why am I here?" she said with a laugh. "I had classes in the environment and pollution. The best way to protect the oceans is by ensuring the water that enters them is clean."

Morales' specialty with RCD is soils. She first performs a chemical analysis before planting to determine how much fertilizer is needed. Then, during the growing season, she conducts a nitrogen quick test to find how much more, and what kind, is still needed.

When she arrived in Santa Maria, she was shocked by the small growers' haphazard fertilizer practices.

"Nitrogen levels were way up. Plants were dying from disease and insects. There were burned leaves and burned roots. Some growers were applying organic mulch, mixing them with non-organic products, and applying twice as much as necessary," Morales said.

"One was using something that looked like motor oil," she elaborated. "It started to stop up the irrigation system. We were astonished at what was going on. We want the growers to know what they are doing before they buy anything."

Monica Barricarte, Argentinean by birth and a Cal Poly Mustang by education, works with Morales. She analyzes irrigation systems and makes recommendations to maximize uniformity and minimize water waste and erosion.

"I listen," grower Martinez acknowledged. "She said you have to have a certain pressure in the hose. If I can see it's better, well, okay."

Barricarte also counsels farmers to use cross-hillside rows rather than running furrows up and down. She promotes drip irrigation with minimal use of sprinklers.

Many of the 40 to 50 growers she most closely advises have cut down on sprinkler, and have saved a chunk of the $8,000 cost of rental and transportation, but none has abandoned them completely.

For Martinez, agency recommendations have led primarily to less fertilizer use.

"The most important thing for me is doing analysis of the soil at the beginning. Before, we never did anything like that," he said.

The RCD's long roots

Farm fresh:
Immigrant farmers in Santa Maria, many of whom grow strawberries, have found a friend in a federal program that started as a service to help victims of the Dust Bowl.
Spurred by a colossal loss of topsoil in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration proposed local Resource Conservation Districts, through which farmers could qualify for federal assistance. In Santa Maria, the federal USDA has teamed with the local RCD since 1950.

By 1955, owners or managers of more than half of the privately held agricultural land in the valley--234 of them--had applied for assistance. They got help for pasture seeding, rotation grazing, land leveling, orchard terracing, irrigation reservoirs, stock ponds, and other improvements.

Usually the federal government supplied engineering and consulting while sharing expenses on construction, but the Feds often paid the lion's share of that, too.

Over the next 30 years, agriculture consolidated. Some farmers began to believe they no longer needed agency help.

"The big operators hire their own engineers and permit processing people, even environmental people," said rancher Leroy Scolari of Lompoc, a board member of the Cachuma RCD.

Over the same period, America urbanized. California's population is now 97 percent urban. Congress began to chop the USDA budget.

Local watershed improvements, once unquestioned, became controversial as new generations of environmentalists came to the fore. Permits required by other agencies slowed RCD and NRCS projects to a standstill.

As a result, the straightforward, federally funded work of the two old erosion and flooding agencies began to include fee-for-service projects, and came to depend on the shifting winds of grant guidelines. Ninety percent of the RCD budget now hangs on competitive grants. Water pollution became the new enemy, "bio-tech" the new watchword.

Tom Lockhart, a deliberate-talking graduate of Texas A&M University, is manager of the Cachuma RCD. It's his mastery of grantsmanship that keeps the RCD afloat.

"We kind of lost our identity as agriculture became more established," Lockhart observed.

Strawberry fields

But five years ago, about the time strawberries burst ahead of broccoli as the county's top cash crop, soil expert Afman noticed the immigrant strawberry growers.

Water worker:
Monica Barricarte is a Cachuma Resource Conservation District water resources specialist. She advises farmers on ways to get the most out of their irrigation systems.
"They didn't know we existed, and we didn't know they existed," she said recently from her new USDA office in Mariposa, a position she received in a transfer and promotion.

Before Afman left Santa Maria, she triggered an outreach effort that's replacing her agency's facelessness with an appealing public persona, one with a marked resemblance to its original Dust Bowl identity.

"It costs $26,000 an acre to grow strawberries. If you don't make it, you lose everything," Afman said.

"It hurt me that they were suffering," she explained about her first unheralded and unsolicited forays to the immigrants' fields. "Then I got kind of obsessed. People were in denial, but I had to keep going out there."

Afman learned rudimentary Spanish, but most growers, unlike Martinez, were leery of her government pickup and her alphabet-soup agency name. The agency knew nothing about the immigrant strawberry farmers.


"A USDA guy told me, 'I don't know how you could have 300 out there when we only have six in the census,'" Afman said. She told him that his census was wrong.

She stood up at a meeting for growers staged by the Regional Water Quality Control Board and announced her agency's presence.

"It was in a Mexican restaurant in Guadalupe," she said. "I thought, 'Hey, there's a great opportunity for me.' I said, 'I am Dawn. We are not regulatory. Can we help? Did you know there is farm bill money available?'"

She corralled the services of a bilingual Cal Poly summer intern to accompany her to the fields as she buttonholed growers.

"Then they began to realize Rocio and I were there to help them," Afman said. "Over 18 months, we grew from one to more than 300."

Soon coworker Barricarte was drafted, as well.

"Monica did water savings analysis," Afman explained, "but I needed help, so I started dragging her out in the field with me."

Morales arrived in 2005.

The rewards

In 2006, the new head of the state association of conservation districts was taking office in Sacramento. He toured the state. When he came to Santa Maria, Afman and her USDA boss, John Bechtold, made sure Burton met the immigrant strawberry growers.

"I think Burton was blown away meeting those guys," Afman said. "He was moved by their stories and their struggles."

Burton was indeed moved, so much so that he planted the seed for the award to Castillo, the first by USDA to a local grower in decades.

RCD Manager Lockhart summed up the significance of Castillo's honor and Martinez's success in terms of his agency's bottom line: its survival.

"It's great for us to find a need out there that we can address. This Spanish outreach is a calling card. It piques people's interest," Lockhart said.

"The grant money we go for is very competitive. We need to have credibility with the Board of Supervisors and with the public," he explained.

Lockhart no longer heads an obscure agency that too few people remember or understand. The local RCD has become a visionary agency with name recognition helping struggling immigrants to protect the environment and pursue their American dream.

Contact freelancer John McReynolds through the executive editor at

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