How a community organization in Lane County helps Latino families grow their own food and businesses
Words by Brittany Norton | Photos by Meghan Jacinto
On the outskirts of Northwest Eugene, Oregon, a 6-acre farm sits nestled between neighborhoods. A narrow dirt road trails past fallow fields and trees adorned with brilliant yellow leaves. Near the back of the farm, the sun sheds golden light over young strawberry plants growing row after row. This farm, named Small Farmers’ Project, has belonged to Margarito Palacios and his family since 2008, with the help of nonprofits Huerto de la Familia and Heifer International.
Palacios’s farm is considered the first success story for Huerto de la Familia’s Cambios program, which helps Latino families start small businesses. Huerto de la Familia, which translates to “the Family Garden,” is based in Lane County with a mission to increase nutrition, health and economic security for Latino families. It operates within two separate facets. One is Cambios, the other is an organic garden program which provides families with a 15-by-15-foot plot of land where they can plant, grow and harvest organic produce to take home and eat. The organization currently works with 85 families, all of whom live at 100 to 150 percent of the federal poverty level.
Huerto de la Familia helps realize a dream for Latino families that otherwise may have been impossible for those working low-wage jobs with little knowledge of how to run a business. Palacios immigrated to the United States from Chiapas, Mexico in 2001. He’s a round-faced man with dark skin and a solemn look in his eyes. He started gardening with Huerto de la Familia’s organic garden program when he moved to Eugene from California in 2005. His next step was to start this farm.
Palacios uses the business as a way to prove his work ethic and refute negative stereotypes of Mexican immigrants. “With this project, I show them I came to work, not to do bad things,” he says.
Small Farmers’ Project was the result of a brief partnership that formed in 2007 between Huerto de la Familia and Heifer International, a nonprofit organization that combats hunger and poverty worldwide, with the explicit intent of helping low-income Latino families start a farm business. At the time, ten families involved with Huerto de la Familia expressed interest in the project. Small Farmers’ Project was then granted funding from the partnership from 2008 to 2011. That same year, Small Farmers’ Project established itself as its own business. It functions as a “u-pick” strawberry and raspberry farm that charges nine dollars for a four-pound bag of produce and 13 dollars for a six-and-a-half-pound bag.
To Palacios, the importance of the farm extends beyond his work ethic. It’s also a place for his family to spend time together. What was once ten families at the beginning of Small Farmers’ Project has dwindled down to two— now Palacios’s family owns half the farm while Juan Hernandez, who is Palacios’s uncle-in-law, and his family owns the other half. Palacios, who lives in Springfield, says he takes his kids to the farm every day in the summer months and together they pick strawberries from the fields. Sometimes, he and his family take two inflatable air mattresses and a red and blue tent to the farm so they can spend the night.
He also uses the farm as an essential teaching tool for his children, five-year-old Victoria and three-year-old Angel. Palacios says he works so his kids can have better lives, but he also wants to instill the values of working in agriculture and taking care of nature. Sometimes, Angel and Victoria throw things at the apple tree that grows on the farm and pull on the branches, but he teaches them that when they do that, it’s like someone pulling your hair.
“I’m going to do the most I can for them to go to the university,” he says, “but my first responsibility is to show them this.”
The executive director of Huerto de la Familia, Marissa Zarate, shares Palacios’s sentiments when it comes to the value of farming and gardening, but for different reasons. Zarate left the law firm she was working for in the Columbia Gorge to become Executive Director of the organization in 2015. Her passion for studying food systems began when she learned about government farm subsidies in college. According to Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and education organization focused on environmental and health issues, these subsidies are supposed to offset agricultural variables, such as weather and market prices, that can affect profits, yet are often skewed to five crops: corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and rice.
“And then the food that we actually need—and that even lots of people want—becomes unaffordable and inaccessible to a lot of families,” Zarate says. “I just feel so strongly that families should be able to have healthy, real food. The chance to pursue that, and spend my career to further that, was worth leaving a beautiful place, even the Gorge.”
She explains that Huerto de la Familia created Cambios and started small business training as a service to garden families who wanted to advance their skill set by starting restaurants or farms. She says it has now expanded to serve Latino families that want to start any type of business. It’s a 12-week class taught in Spanish by Alexandra Perez Urbina, the Cambios program manager. It includes one-on-one counseling with each participant to help them navigate the nuances of starting a business.
“A big part of the program is bringing in community experts. If there’s somebody who has some sort of authority on the subject, they’re more likely to listen,” Urbina says of the program participants. These experts may include immigration attorneys and insurance agents.
In addition to the organization’s Cambios program, Huerto de la Familia also operates the organic garden program, which largely acts to combat food insecurity. Participants receive a plot of land, and they have the autonomy to grow whatever they want and visit the garden at any time. The United States Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as families “uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.”
Zarate cites language barriers as a contributing factor of food insecurity for many Latino families. “If you don’t speak English then you don’t qualify for a lot of jobs that you have the skill set for,” she says. “We see that our families end up in positions that don’t pay as much, and just don’t have as much money to spend on food.”
According to the USDA, the national average of food insecurity within households was 12.3 percent in 2016. However, Hispanic, black non-Hispanic, low-income families and households with children experienced it at a higher than average rate. Specifically, Hispanic households experience food insecurity at a national rate of 18.5 percent. On top of that, the Oregon Center for Public Policy found that Oregon had the sharpest increase of food insecurity in the country from 2013 to 2015, ranking sixth worst in the nation.
There are five organic garden community plots in Eugene and one in Springfield, all with a lock or code, so only participants have access. Interested households contact Huerto de la Familia to obtain a plot of land. There is a contract that all members sign that includes agreements such as when someone must plant and how to prepare as well as maintain their garden. The organization operates on a “use it or lose it” policy, meaning if someone doesn’t plant by a certain date, they lose their land and it’s given to someone else. The program has a 25-person waitlist in Springfield.
Huerto de la Familia operates on funding from grants, donors and in-kind donations such as using land on school and church properties for their garden spaces and seed and fertilizer donations. The biggest challenge for the organization is having sufficient funding to expand the program and hire more employees. It’s looking to purchase farmland so it can explore starting an incubator for farm businesses similar to Palacios’s. Zarate points to other groups doing farm business startups, like Rogue Farm Corps in Ashland, Oregon, that say these startups can’t be done in a small amount of time. Organizations that assist farm businesses in becoming established have to make a two to four year commitment to a farm. The challenges of a small business are multiplied by farming requirements such as owning land, operations and keeping track of finances and documentation, Zarate says.
“Starting a small business is hard, and there’s not a high chance of success,” she says. “Our goal as a nonprofit is not to promise them that they’ll succeed, but to give them the best possible chance of success.”