California’s Salinas Valley is commonly known as “the Salad Bowl of the World” for its agricultural productivity. Within this region of farmers lives Javier Zamora, owner of one of the most prosperous small, organic farms in the area — JSM Organics — and living proof that the path to becoming a successful entrepreneur isn’t always easy.
Born in Mexico, Zamora’s farming roots run deep. As the son of a grower for an American company, he attended an elementary school — attached to farmland — that was part of an agricultural cooperative. By the time he was 20 years old, Zamora was ready to leave the farm behind so he migrated to the United States, settled in Southern California, and eventually got married and had children.
In 2009, the recession impacted Zamora and his family and, more than two decades after moving to the U.S., he found himself trekking north to Salinas, California, for a fresh start. Once in Salinas, Zamora earned his GED certificate, attended college, and began working for a farmer — rekindling the roots he had left behind in Mexico.
Zamora thought he might like to start his own farm. Unsure of how to go about it, he sought assistance from his instructor and learned about the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) — a nonprofit specializing in reducing barriers to farm ownership for immigrant laborers.
From the moment he began talking to Nathan Harkleroad, ALBA’s education program manager, Zamora knew he had found his path. “I remember thinking this is what I want to do. This will help me get closer to my goal of developing my own business and reigniting my passion for farming,” said Zamora.
Enabling workers to become business owners
Founded in 2001, ALBA — an organic farm incubator and school for aspiring farmers — helps low-income immigrant workers launch their own farming businesses. The nonprofit accepts 30 students every year for its farmer education course called PEPA — Programa Educativo Para Pequeños Agricultores; Spanish for educational program for small farmers. The yearlong course includes 300 hours of intensive classroom training as well as hands-on training on a one-acre field.
PEPA graduates can apply for ALBA’s incubator program. If accepted, farmers lease half an acre on ALBA’s 100-acre farm for at least one year — giving them real-world experience in farming and an opportunity to prepare their product for market.
“We lease our land at subsidized rates so farmers have four to five years to get their businesses up and running,” said Christopher Brown, ALBA’s development director. Since PEPA’s inception, 350 students have graduated. Of those, 160 have launched their own farms — with more than half still in business.
Because ALBA owns so much land, it’s able to have 30 new students in the classroom and 30 in its incubator program at the same time. The 30 incubator farm businesses hire about 100 people and generate approximately $1 million per year.
ALBA’s combination of resources is rare for farm development programs; particularly it’s food hub, ALBA Organics, which has exceeded $25 million in sales since its founding. The company aggregates produce from several of its incubator participants and handles the marketing and logistics — enabling its fledging farmers to access fast-growing, lucrative markets and customers for organic produce like Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and Silicon Valley tech firms.
Inspiring economic opportunity
No other service exists locally to help low-income people achieve farm ownership, according to Brown. “This program,” he said, “has helped improve the underlying economy in the Salinas Valley by helping people that have been marginalized by the economy because of lack of language skills, resources, and education.”
Wells Fargo has supported ALBA since 2006, and has invested $220,000 to date in the nonprofit. Last year, Wells Fargo helped ALBA launch its new organic workforce initiative.
Realizing that previous PEPA graduates had bypassed farm ownership and secured promising well-paying careers at agriculture companies inspired Harkelroad to expand the PEPA course to include workforce development concepts. “This new program builds skills and gives students more options for financial independence,” he said. “They graduate with valuable experience that makes them very marketable.”
Zamora started with a half-acre on ALBA farmland in 2012. He now has more than 100 acres, employs 30 people, and grows strawberries that are in high demand throughout the Bay Area.
“It’s inspiring to see programs like ALBA produce people like Javier,” said Geri Yang-Johnson, a Wells Fargo senior community relations consultant. A daughter of Hmong immigrant field workers, Yang-Johnson has a passion for helping farmers access tools and resources to achieve brighter futures. “Working the fields in California’s Central Valley taught me to love the land and appreciate the people who grow our food,” she said. “I get to merge this passion with my work in community development — enabling us to help those working within the food system to thrive.”