ALBA farmers clash with staff over leases, treatment and produce prices.
Thursday, April 3, 2008
Irene Zamudio touches the soft green leaves of her organic fava beans. Raspberry plants sprout a row over as traffic buzzes past on Hall Road in Las Lomas. In about a month, the berries will be ready to harvest. But Zamudio may be kicked off the farm before then.
Zamudio leases 2.89 acres from the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, a Salinas-based nonprofit that trains small organic farmers. ALBA staff recently decided not to renew her lease, which expired April 2. In a March 13 letter, ALBA Executive Director Brett Melone gave Zamudio until May 2 to clear out her crops.
Zamudio, who has been farming with ALBA since 2004, estimates that she could lose more than $50,000. “I would be losing three years worth of work,” Zamudio says in Spanish through her daughter’s translation. She says she’d also struggle to pay rent. Farming is the only source of income for Zamudio, a single mother with three children.
ALBA didn’t renew her contract because Zamudio abandoned several pieces of her land, is more than 180 days late on lease payments, hasn’t adequately managed weeds, and failed to remove a deserted vehicle, among other things, according to the March 13 letter. Zamudio refutes the claims, saying she never abandoned her land, most farmers have grass in their fields, and ALBA overcharged her. The letter also mentions Zamudio’s “preference to involve external parties to resolve issues.”
After neighboring pigs ate her snow peas earlier this year, Zamudio says, ALBA wouldn’t help her. “They said, ‘The squirrels are the ones doing that,’ ” Zamudio says. Zamudio’s daughter Maria holds up a picture of a pig print on her mom’s cell phone as proof.
So Zamudio complained to the Monterey County Farm Bureau. “When I told the Farm Bureau [ALBA staff] got really upset,” Zamudio says.
But Melone says it wasn’t just her involvement with the Farm Bureau. “She has a long history of noncompliance and that’s why we decided not to renew her lease,” he says. “We are not obligated to have her as a tenant.”
Zamudio is not the only farmer with complaints against ALBA. Víctor Almazán is president of an ALBA farmers committee, which has been meeting since July 2007. Almazán says ALBA is veering away from its mission to “advance economic viability, social equity and ecological land management among limited-resource and aspiring farmers.” And some farmers are unhappy about being turned down when they ask for more land.
Juan Perez, owner of J & P Organics, farms three acres at ALBA’s Salinas farm off Old Stage Road. While Perez credits ALBA for training him to grow organically, he wishes the organization would lease him more land so that he can expand his business. Perez says ALBA denied his request for an extra acre last year; he has a pending bid for another two to three acres. “I know that ALBA has probably 20 acres available there, I don’t know why they are not giving it to farmers that are petitioning it,” he says.
Almazán says ALBA Organics, the nonprofit’s produce distributor, doesn’t give them fair prices and doesn’t buy everything farmers grow. Plus, Almazán says, staff are condescending to farmers.
“They don’t treat the farmers with respect,” Almazán says. “I think it’s a discrimination matter.”
Some farmers, Almazán alleges, receive special treatment from ALBA staff. Florentino Collazo, farm manager of the Rural Development Center, is married to farmer Maria Luz Reyes. Hector Mora, ALBA’s warehouse manager, also farms. Program Director Rebecca Thistlethwaite is married to Jim Dunlop, who leases land from ALBA. Almazán says Melone has been unresponsive to these issues.
Melone responds by saying a team of five staff members reviews land requests and grants them based on land availability and adherence to the contract, which includes paying bills on time, maintaining organic certification and keeping fields free of weeds and trash. Melone says ALBA recently granted three requests for additional land, and several graduates from the organization’s Farmer Education Program will also need acreage.
Beginning farmers start out with a half-acre and pay 20 percent of market rate, now set at $1,300 per acre. Farmers progressively pay more for the land, irrigation and use of equipment each year they farm, up to seven years, when ALBA charges full commercial rates.
While ALBA Organics does cultivation plans with farmers, the quantity of produce the distributor ultimately buys and the price depends on the market. If there is a glut, Melone says, farmers will receive lower prices. “ALBA Organics is a work in progress,” he says. “We are learning as we go and still trying to improve things.”
As for farmers clashing with staff, Melone doesn’t doubt there is tension since staff have the dual role of teachers and contract regulators. “I think ALBA staff has the responsibility to ensure that people are treated with respect,” he says, adding that ALBA’s board of directors is working to address farmers’ concerns.
On March 28 the board took action in regard to staff having conflicts of interest; Melone wouldn’t say what was decided. The board also will consider whether to accept farmer nominations for seats. On March 27, the farmers committee nominated Zamudio and Almazán. If the board approves the two nominations, Almazán says farmers will be able to bring issues directly to the board.
Zamudio’s case also will be reviewed by a board committee. In case it doesn’t rule in her favor, she says, she’ll hire a lawyer.