Cooperative effort helps families start farming

Heifer International and Huerto de la Familia helped start the Small Farmers’ Project in Eugene, Ore.

 

EUGENE, Ore. — Margarito Palacios belongs to one of the two families that runs the Small Farmers’ Project, a cooperative for Latino families that sells organic blackcap raspberries, fruit jam and U-pick strawberries at their farmstand.

The effort started in 2008 through Heifer International and Huerto de la Familia, which is Spanish for the Family Garden. For three years they supported the program by securing a $6,000 grant, renting the farmland, helping put in electricity and hiring veteran berry grower Carl Berg to train the farmers over six months.

The SFP has since become a separate enterprise, but Palacios said the organizations still support them.

Sarah Cantril, former executive director of Huerto de la Familia, said she is happy that the SPF continues, even though the operation has scaled back over the past several years, with several families leaving the co-op and fewer acres being farmed.

“The thing about the project, if you look at it from a capitalistic point of view, it’s hard to see the benefit,” she said. “They had to have jobs off the farm. It hasn’t been as lucrative as it could be, but I know for a fact people have paid off debt and sent money home to their children. Three people out of two families were able to have their higher education paid for in their home countries.”

The project also helped the Latino image in the community, Cantril said.

Palacios was eager to join because he said Latinos don’t make enough money to have their own farm. He was working minimum wage at SPF’s creation, but still works as a supervisor at a cleaning company.

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The Small Farmers’ Project produces strawberries, blackcap raspberries.

“When we heard (about SFP) we say ‘yes’ quickly because it’s an opportunity for our family,” he said. “My daughter is four and my son is two, and I want a good life for them.”

Palacios is proud that SFP is organic. He said it is everyone’s responsibility to take care of the world for future generations — such as his children, who often go through the fields eating berries straight off the plant.

The initial struggle the business had was reaching customers. For that reason, SPF contracted with Organically Grown Co., the University of Oregon and others, according to Cantril.

From 2011 to 2014, SPF worked with Organically Grown Co. to produce blackcap raspberries. Approached by Cantril and Berg about the berries’ marketability, Organically Grown decided to help the group package and market the product for them, said Mike Neubeck, director of sourcing.

In four years, SPF sold 1,500 units of 12 half-pint blackcap raspberries.

Neubeck said that SPF began to “test different waters,” adding the U-pick strawberry field and jam products. Eventually the co-op told him that they were wanting to sell direct to retail.

“They’re great people and it was a neat experiment,” he said.

Cantril credits SFP as the “project that instigated the Cambio businesses,” a micro-development program through Huerto de la Familia that will assist Latinos set up or expand farm and food business ideas. The program offers both training and business counseling, as well as a food booth program.

“Shifting the dynamic of Latinos to being leaders of micro-businesses will help them to integrate into the larger Eugene (and) Springfield community, access new financial opportunities and help lead our disadvantaged communities to a more equitable and prosperous future,” Huerto de la Familia said on its website.

For Palacios, SFP is more than a way to support his family. It’s a chance to show Americans why he came to the U.S.

“Sometimes a couple gringo think that we come to do bad things, but with my job I show them what I come to do,” he said. “It’s not only for me. I do this for many, many Latinos.”

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