Rodrigo Cala’s return to farming started with a craving. Shortly after he and his brother, Juan Carlos, arrived in Minnesota from New York in 2004, they got hungry for chicharrones en salsa verde—pork in green sauce. The brothers searched for ingredients at Mexican grocery stores and ultimately acquired the necessary supplies. But it didn’t taste like home.
“At the end of the day, we found it but the quality was so poor,” Rodrigo Cala, 47, recalled with a laugh.
The brothers saw an opportunity in their disappointment. They could grow and sell quality Mexican produce to help other newcomers replicate the flavors of home, and assist their new American neighbors in expanding their palates.
Seventeen years later, Cala runs a robust USDA Organic–certified 46-acre farm in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin. He’s a bit of a sage in the organic farming community, traveling across the region and nation to teach other farmers how to farm in more environmentally friendly ways, while maximizing their earning potential. He also works with Minnesota’s Latino Economic Development Center to help other immigrant farmers establish themselves as organic growers.
For all the expertise he has to share, Cala also can offer his story as a model for how Latinos and other immigrants can become farm owners and producers–helping to reverse their low numbers and historic marginalization in the industry.
His farm sits on the end of a dirt road near the St. Croix Casino, on a plot of land between upper and lower Turtle Lake. On a brisk Wednesday in the early spring, melting snow and mud covered much of the land outside of his brick farmhouse and aging grain silos.
An easygoing man with soft, dark eyes, a well-kept goatee, and a warm laugh, Cala smiled as he watched his herd of Katahdin-Dorper sheep munch on a breakfast of corn stalks and hay. The herd’s mothers recently gave birth and their lambs are still feeding, expressing their hunger with loud bleats.
Learning about organic farming–starting with what it is
The Cala brothers were no strangers to growing food. They were raised on a farm in San Andrés Mixquic, an agricultural hub in the southeast of the Mexico City Federal District, known for its Day of the Dead celebration. There, the family grew broccoli, herbs, spinach, and swiss chard.
But in the United States, Rodrigo Cala didn’t work the land. During his early years in Minnesota, he forged horseshoes. Inspired by his uninspiring chicharrones, he looked for ways to break into farming.
He began a three-year course in organic farming run by the Minnesota Food Association, a nonprofit organization that trains immigrants and people of color in sustainable agriculture. The organization’s farmer education program provides a mix of classroom and in-field experiences that instruct participants on the business and the growing side of agriculture.
Cala didn’t know what organic farming was when he started, but he quickly learned and became a devoted disciple.
Organic farming is a food production system that strives for sustainability. Practically, growers accomplish this through a few main methods: developing soil health and fertility; encouraging biological diversity; conserving water; and rejecting the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
The term is commonplace and simple, but the standards for organic food production are rigorous. A “certified-organic” operation requires a complex, multi-step process, ultimately overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Cala has come to love organic farming for two reasons: It’s good for people and soil; and it’s the most economical way to maintain a small farm.
“We can talk poetically about farming, but we need to make money,” he said.
The Cala farm has done well, expanding by 16 acres since it began as a 30-acre parcel in 2008. The Calas now try to share their success.
The farm sells organic vegetable and herb seedlings to other members of the Shared Ground Co-op, a group of six farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Latino families operate four of the six farms. All grow organic produce. The co-op maintains partnerships with 35 other organic farms across the country to help source a variety of goods.
Many in Minnesota’s agriculture sector write off smaller produce farms as a market niche, according to Natalie Hoidal, a local foods and vegetable educator with University of Minnesota Extension. “But they actually play a significant role in our farm system,” she said.
There are an estimated 3,000 fruit and vegetable farms in Minnesota, mostly working on smaller parcels of land. The average Minnesota farm is 375 acres and large operations typically produce commodity crops like soybeans, corn, and grains.
But produce, particularly vegetables, can be grown on 10 acres or less. “That is the area of farming most accessible to emerging farmers,” Hoidal said.
For people of color, pursuing a career in farming likely means starting fresh in the field. While Latinos are central to the agricultural labor force, ownership has largely been the province of white farmers.
Of the 68,822 farms in Minnesota, the vast majority are operated by white people, according to the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture. Latinos run 583 farms; Asians run 281; and African Americans run just 48.
Organic farms constitute a small portion of the state’s agriculture sector, with only 639 recorded in 2017.
Immigrant farmers could fill spots in an aging workforce
The average American farmer is 58 years old, according to USDA data. Cala sees an opportunity for immigrants to fill the spots being vacated by an aging workforce.
“They are helping the community to survive,” he said.
Farmers are usually good at what they do, Cala believes. When he’s consulting with farmers, the goal is not necessarily to make them better at their craft; it’s to help them become better business operators.
“The biggest barrier for farmers is the market,” Cala said.
Going organic, he argues, is a great way for farmers to enter a more stable market. The organic produce market grew by 5 percent in 2019, according to the Organic Trade Association. And trends from 2020 suggests the market continued to expand during the pandemic. Cala believes demand for sustainable products will only increase in the future.
Cala’s insights here have developed and deepened over the years.
After moving to the U.S. in 1998, Cala worked two jobs while living in New York City. One fast food restaurant manager told him, “You’re a Mexican, you’re a hard worker,” he recalls. It’s a stereotype that is often deployed as a compliment, but one Cala sees as limiting.
“We have other skills besides being hard workers,” he said.
The farmers he helps through the Latin Economic Development Center usually come from southern Mexican states like Michocán, Chiapas, and Yucatán. Many arrived in the U.S. at a young age and worked in meatpacking or dairy production. They see buying a small farm as a way to be their own boss.
Cala helps prepare them for the technical aspects of farming, such as best practices for growing a variety of crops. He provides on-site consulting for first year farmers and assists in business development as well.
Language barriers remain a big issue for immigrant farmers in Minnesota, Cala said. Language is an even bigger challenge for non-Spanish speaking immigrants. Hmong and Somali speakers often find very little farming information available in their native language.
The University of Minnesota Extension has been trying to address those gaps. In recent years it has produced more Hmong language content.
Adapting to changing conditions
Like everything on Cala’s farm, he selected the herd of Katahdin-Dorper sheep to make the land more fertile. The animals help by eating cover crops: plants such as alfalfa and mustard. Farmers plant cover crops in fields that are not currently in production to add organic matter to the soil and build nitrogen. Cover crops help farmers save on fertilizer costs, while also helping to suppress weeds without herbicides.
When Cala uses this field to grow conventional crops, like vegetables, next season, the soil will be richer. Cala gets extra savings by having his sheep eat the cover crops and fertilize the ground as they go.
It’s a greener alternative to the nitrogen-based, synthetic fertilizers common to conventional farming. These products are major sources of greenhouse gases and their pollutants can harm the health of streams and rivers.
“The most important thing in organic farming is the soil,” Cala said.
He sells sheep for meat as well, which helps bring in revenue year-round.
Cala doesn’t feel the need to use many pesticides on his farm, applying only a small treatment of organic pesticides each year. He doesn’t use much water either; he believes the upper Midwest gets plenty of rain already.
Maybe too much rain. Broccoli and cauliflower have traditionally been the biggest seller for Cala farms, but he’s not planting any this year. The heavy rains in 2020 were too hard on these plants in the brassica family and he realized a poor yield.
Those failed crops proved common across the region, said Hoidal, from University of Minnesota Extension, and can be attributed to climate change. Springs are becoming wetter in Minnesota, particularly in the parts of central Minnesota that grow the most vegetables. More moisture and humidity means better conditions for crop disease. Black rot, a bacteria linked to damp conditions, caused up to 80 percent yield loss for broccoli farmers across the state last year, Hoidal said.
Cala observed this at his farm. “Climate change is not a problem just for farmers, it is a concern for people who want to eat three times a day,” Cala said.
This year, Cala will be planting sweet corn, garlic, onions, winter squash, hot peppers, tomatoes, and herbs. He’s embarking on a project to further diversify the farm by adding chickens and planting nut trees. With changing conditions, organic farmers often find themselves on the forefront of developing disease-management practices and experimenting with crops that fit the new climate.
Cala entered a crowded greenhouse on his property and pointed to thousands of chestnut and hazelnut tree seedlings beginning to sprout in tiny pods. The plan is to add 8,000 trees to the farm each year.
Planting nut trees, Cala said, creates a big annual yield with less labor: They grow perennially and can be harvested using machinery. But it’s a long term investment: The trees will begin producing edible nuts in seven years. The way that Cala sees it, sustainable farms like his will be around for a long time.