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April 2006
Field of Dreams
The Satya Interview with Maria del Pilar Alvarez


NFDP staff and participants (from left) Maria Alvarez, Maria Franco, Esther James, Nestor Tello, Esperanza Bejarano, Jose Cruz, Jorge Buitrago and Guillermo Naula at Decker Farm. Photo by John Amoroso

Springtime road trips lead many New Yorkers to venture into the rural living of upstate. With sweet smelling orchards, bubbling brooks and quaint antique stores, it is easy for us urbanites not to notice how quiet things are—too quiet. Of course we take in the green grasses, the smell of clean air, and perhaps a cow or two, but rarely do we look close enough to see that there is something missing. Something important.

American small family farms—ones that are passed down from generation to generation—are mostly all gone. Sure some of the buildings may still be standing, but most of these old farmhouses have been restored and sold as residences for hefty prices. The land itself is still.

Across the country, those small farms still functioning struggle to stay in business. But they are failing. They are disappearing into developments; disappearing into commercial buildings. They are falling without grace as shutters drop from decaying windows. Today’s farmers are simply unable to make it. With corporate agribusiness taking away the market, children of generations of farmers leave their heritage in search of a better life, for more money and less struggle.

Many immigrants to the U.S. leave their homeland for similar reasons—in search of a better life. Founded in January 2000 as a joint initiative of the Council on the Environment of NYC Greenmarket program and the Cornell Cooperative Extension, the New Farmers Development Project (NFDP) helps immigrants who farmed in their native country explore the opportunity of farming in upstate New York. The project teaches them about New York’s diverse climate, growing conditions, and soil types, placing a strong emphasis on marketing and business plan development. By training the next generation of regional farmers, NFDP hopes to stem the decline of Northeast farming by preserving farmland, strengthening farmers markets, and expanding public access to locally grown products.

Kymberlie Adams Matthews had a chance to talk with project coordinator, Maria del Pilar Alvarez, about her personal journey and how the New Farmer Development Project assists immigrants to adjust to a new country, a new culture and a new farm.

What is the New Farmer Development Project’s mission?
Basically we try to identify, educate and support agriculturally experienced immigrants in the New York City region. We help them establish economically and environmentally sound, small-scale farm operations. Our work also helps preserve regional farmland, strengthen farmers’ markets, and expand access to high quality, locally grown farm products.

How did this project come about?
I was working at Cornell and we started doing outreach in 1999 to see if there were any organizations around the city who worked with immigrants. We wanted to see how many immigrants with agricultural experience would be interested in opening a small farm business here. To our surprise, we had more than 200 immigrants respond. We found that many immigrants in New York City have experience with farming, and would like to farm here because of the many benefits it offers. Those that farm have the ability to spend more time with their families and have the opportunity to be around nature.

Who can join the New Farmers Development Project?
Any immigrant who has experience as a farmer in their home country or acquires farming experience in this country. We have participants who are highly educated in this field, and that’s very important, but we also look for those that have worked the land with their bare hands. Farming is a very hard job and for that reason only the participants with great a passion for it are interested. People who really know what it means to be a farmer, love it.

Where are the farmers from?
Most of the farmers are originally from Latin America. They come from over 10 countries and backgrounds with skills and interests in raising vegetables, flowers and livestock, as well as organic production and alternative energy. Many have much knowledge of ethnic crops, and large family systems that provide a lot of resources. The project has assisted more than a dozen immigrants to enter the agriculture world. We have a Dominican, who wasn’t a farmer in his home country, but worked for farmers here in the Greenmarket for almost six years. He acquired knowledge, from planting to marketing, and now has a farm in Pennsylvania. We have two brothers and their families from Mexico working together. They are the first ones who had a chance to buy a farm this year. We are very excited about it. Their sister is thinking about starting a small farm operation this year too. They have a really nice place. There is another couple from Mexico that started last year in Westchester County and are planning to come back this year. And a group of six Mexicans, all related, who were working on a small training farm on Staten Island, and they became independent last year.

Are there a lot of challenges?
Oh yeah. We have lots. I mean, when you just get here and try to assimilate, most of the time you don’t have many resources. You just come here to survive. Besides surviving, you have to continue supporting your parents and family in your home country. It is really hard to have two houses and two families to support—let alone in two different countries—to be able to provide for everybody! So it is really hard for many immigrants to save money and establish credit. They think about buying land, but it is a really hard thing to do. It is a long process.

Also, many of them don’t have a driver’s license and that is another big obstacle. When you cannot drive, you cannot go to the farm; you cannot bring your products to the market. Maybe you can pay somebody to do it, but that’s a big expense. We also always encourage a small farm to usually have one or two acres, a maximum of 5-10 acres, so it is possible for the farmer to manage the land. But sometimes it is even hard to manage two acres, especially with no equipment. If you don’t have capital you don’t have access to equipment. So the farming is incredibly labor-intensive. We try to go out to the farms during the season to help out with weeding and other activities. It is very labor-intensive to control the weeds.

You mentioned the training farms, what are they exactly?
In addition to the classroom sessions, the project has secured three “demonstration farms” in and around the city. On these farms, participants can learn about the importance of soil testing, crop selection and regional growing conditions. Harvested crops help teach them how to use direct marketing and follow a business plan. It is a very good opportunity for starters, to help them see if this is what they want to do before they invest. They can experience the whole season from day one, from growing to farmers market. We also have participants who really want to improve themselves and prefer to work with Greenmarket farmers for one or more seasons to acquire experience. At first some of the farmers from the Greenmarket were skeptical…thinking, what is this? People are going to take our customers. But with time, some of them understood that there are advantages in bringing immigrant farmers who grow ethnic products and who are bringing a diversity of customers to the markets.

Do you think it is important to support local food?
We need to support local foods because we have a decline of farmers in the area and our food supply is depending more and more on global economics. It is crucial to give people access to fresh food. Farmers markets have become very popular in New York in recent years because people appreciate the freshness and high quality of local farm products.

What do you view as the main threat to small farms?
I heard one farmer talking at a conference. What he said was funny, but at the same time sad. He had eight kids and he made the “mistake” of educating them all. They go off to college and don’t want to come back. They said they could make a better living with less work. I mean, they see their parents do not have much support from the government and that a lot of the money goes to big farm operations. It is really sad. And that is why the New Farmer Development Project is so important, it allows immigrants who want to farm to have a chance at a better life and to take care of the land.

You talk so passionately about this. How did you become interested in immigrant and farming issues?
As all immigrants do, I have an interesting story. I came here about 20 years ago from Colombia where I was going to school for economics. I was [invited] to come here, but when I went to get my work visa, it was denied. So I came through Mexico. It is nothing I would recommend anyone to do because all the risk involved. Of course, at that young age you don’t always think twice. You hear stories about what happened to others who came that way. I am so thankful that nothing happened to me.
Participants from the project come to the U.S in different ways and for very different reasons. But when you get here the reality sets in and you struggle to find some direction in order to accomplish your dreams. When you migrate it is so hard to find the right help, especially if you want to go into a particular field or continue in school. It was really hard for me. I had the challenge of being an immigrant but also a single mother of two children. Immigrating here has brought me moments of loneliness and depression, but also moments of great satisfaction and joy. I’ve been blessed to have two supervisors, who were also immigrants, who supported me to complete my education. That’s why I am passionate about my job, it enables me to help other immigrants.

Immigration, in its essence, means starting again. Life in a country where one was not born, where one does not speak the language, and where one has few or no relatives is an experience filled with mixed emotions. Missing one’s homeland, family, and friends is part of the daily bread. But all changes are signs of life and should therefore be a source of motivation. Working with the NFDP gives me double satisfaction because I can develop my professional skills while working with immigrants who are also struggling to succeed. They know that with just a little support and direction they can achieve their dreams!

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Sonnia Lopez:
A New Beginning

In 1998, Sonnia Lopez and her family left Ecuador to move to NYC. Political instability and natural disasters had severely disrupted the infrastructure on which their 44-acre cattle farm depended, and her family sought better opportunities in the U.S.

As for many immigrants, Sonnia’s priority upon arrival was survival. But, in addition to supporting her family through work in fast food restaurants and department stores, Sonnia became active in the NFDP.

Sonnia learned about the project through a front page article in El Diario/La Prensa. She participated in farm and market tours, attended workshops on agriculture, and became a member of the NFDP Committee, which develops credit opportunities for new farmers. Last summer she sold produce for Greenmarket farmers, an experience which proved to Sonnia that growing and marketing in this region could in fact be profitable.

This spring, Greenmarket farmer Ana Tudorof contacted the NFDP. Ana, herself an immigrant from Romania, had finally purchased a farm in southern New Jersey, and the three-acre parcel she had farmed for the past seven years was available. When the NFDP announced this news at a weekly La Nueva Siembra class, Sonnia jumped at the opportunity, and she is now growing flowers and vegetables on the land.

Sonnia is enthusiastic about establishing a new farm. With technical assistance from Cornell’s Cooperative Extension program, guidance and support from NFDP staff and participants, and the invaluable help of her three sons, Sonnia is eagerly waiting for her tomatoes to ripen so that she can attend the Jackson Heights Greenmarket in Queens.—Maria del Pilar Alvarez


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