Immigrant Farmers

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WNYC – Morning Edition – 10/6/04

Immigrant Farmers
By Cindy Rodriguez

The first frost of the season hit the northern edges of the region this week – a signal the growing season is over for area farmers. Those who have been selling their fruits, vegetables and flowers to the various neighborhood green markets include immigrants attempting to use agricultural skills honed in their homeland. WNYC's Cindy Rodriguez visited the Hudson Valley for this report

Pine Island New York in Orange County is also known as the "Heart of the Black Dirt Region". The soil is so moist, the houses are sinking and canals have to be dug so that excess water can find its way out. It is gridded wide open farmland. Onions and potatoes are the crops of choice. For Martin and Pedro Rodriguez, two brothers from Mexico, it is pipishca, papalo and bright yellow zucchini flowers:

"Muy poca gente van a tener las flores que nosotros tenemos porque esto es de calabaza Mexicana. La flor es mas grande…y aqui si hay flores."

Translation: Very few people are going to have the flowers that we have because these are from Mexican zucchini. The flower is much bigger… and do we ever have flowers.

Pedro, his wife and his 78 year old father pick the delicate flowers that are attached to small green zucchinis that took about 3 months to grow. Nearby hidden by high grass and weed are patches of watermelons and cantaloupes. There is little room to maneuver around them:

"Todo esto tiene cultiva solamente que se enhiervo mucho porque no es lo mismo siembrar con maquinaria que hacer lo todo a mano. Por ejemploy, aya en Mexico, uno no tiene maquinaria pero tiene animals para trabajar la tierra. Entonces aqui hay a desde arrar a mano, y recolector a mano."

Translation: All of this has a harvest. It's just that it got all weeded because it's not the same to plant with equipment as to plant by hand. For example in Mexico you may not have equipment but you have animals to work the land. Here, you have to plant and collect everything by hand.

The two brothers are new to the area. They rented 7.5 acres from an area farmer last spring. It cost them one-thousand, seven hundred and fifty dollars for the year. The deal was brokered by coordinators from the New Farmer Development Project. This program supported by the U.S. Department of agriculture identifies immigrants who are experienced farmers, then helps them find land in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Project coordinators say often older farmers have no one to pass on their land to so it eventually gets sold for development.

On the way to the Rodriguez farm, Thalia Parilla, from the New Farmer Development Project says the group would ideally like to establish mentorships with farmers but it's often challenging:

They have a certain set idea of what crops can grow and what can't grow. Like I'm sure if Martin had gone to some of the old farmers saying I want to grow all these crops from Mexico, they would be like your dreaming.

The Rodriguez farm is somewhat of an experiment. Some crops have been failures but there have also been unexpected surprises, like bok choy. The family had considered the crop a weed until they were told different. Now they are selling it at the market.

In order to familiarize immigrant farmers with the different vegetables, soil, and climate of the Northeast, every Wednesday evening the immigrants who enroll in the program meet for a class. John Ameroso, from Cornell teaches it:

Our cut off date is September 1st. When September 1st hits it's not wise to start planting anything because you waste your seed.

There are 10 participants in the current session. A few work construction, one is a hairdresser and others have jobs in restaurants. All of them worked on farms in their homelands. Back home, some grew peaches and blue corn, others raised chickens, and at least one was a fish farmer. 42 year old Catarino de Jesus is a shoesmith on Wall Street. Back in Mexico he worked on his family's farm where they grew what they ate. He says the chemicals used to shine shoes bother him so he's looking for another line of work:

Translation: I would like to be in the fresh air. I would like to pass the time in a place that is not so contaminated.

The program began two years ago, since then 82 people have graduated. Only 5 are currently renting land. Program directors admit that number is low but say its comparable to other new farmer projects that support non-immigrants.

After the training is complete, and land has been found and planted, the new farmers sell their produce at area green markets.

The wives talking to customers

Currently the Rodriguez family sells their products in Jackson Heights, Prospect Heights, Sunset Park and last month the highly selective Green Market at Union Square in Manhattan:

"Oh this is very good"

Monica Cowhau is Austrian and says she's been a chef at two Manhattan restaurants. She is trying papalo. A green eaten in salads. Another customer, David Jacobson from Queens describes the leaf as crisp, fragrant, slightly bitter but interesting combined with other lettuces:

JACOBSON: I've been serving this to friends and everyone was very curious about what this was and why they can't find it elsewhere.

The Mexican products were not such a novelty for everyone. Two regular customers discuss the different ways to use epazote, another herb:

"Para chilaquiles, para la salsa de huevo se le da un buen sabor, para salsa de pollo, y tambien en Mexico mi mama se me lo daba para que tuviera buen memoria."

Translation: For chilaquiles, salsa over eggs, salsa over chicken, and also in Mexico as a child my mother would give it to me to make sure I had a good memory.

At the end of the day more people had to come to look then to buy. Pedro said it was their first day and people still needed to familiarize themselves with the products. After the market, the family who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn made the 2 to 3 hour trip back to the farm to pick for the following day's market. While at the farm Pedro says he wishes they lived close by:

PEDRO: "El unico inconveniente es que vivimos en la cuidad y tenemos que viajar casi todos los dias, pore so no nos dam as tiempo. Porque si vivimos aqui, teniamos mas tiempo. Nos levantaremos a las 6 de la manana y trabajabamos todo el dia."

TRANSLATION: The only inconvenience is that we live in the city and we have to travel here nearly every day. That's why we never have enough time. If we live here, we would have more time. We could start at 6 am and work all day.

For now, Pedro says he will rent for another year.

For WNYC: I'm Cindy Rodriguez

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