Joaquin Jimenez grew up watching his grandparents and uncles produce vegetables and raise livestock on their small ranch in Mexico. Now, he is working to ensure that farm workers employed on farms and ranches in the Half Moon Bay area of California have the same opportunity.
For the past few years, Joaquin has been working with the Half Moon Bay Latino Council of Half Moon Bay to create a cooperative for farm workers called Rancho San Benito. The goal of the project is to help individuals launch their own farm businesses growing and selling food alongside their full-time jobs on local farms. He hopes that by early spring 2021 the farmers will be preparing soil and growing food.
The idea for Rancho San Benito began a few years ago when a proposal was being circulated in Half Moon Bay to grow marijuana in greenhouses. For individuals without documentation or legal residency, a significant percentage of the city’s population, the marijuana industry is a very risky field. The Latino community stood up against the project as something they did not see benefiting the community. That was the moment when the idea came to Joaquin to develop a structure where farm workers could have the opportunity to create and be part of a farming cooperative with their family, friends, and community.
Farm workers, despite being essential, rarely have the opportunity to start their own businesses. “We are losing our farmworkers,” Joaquin says. On top of the back-breaking work and lack of protections, the national average pay for farmworkers is just over $7 per hour, while the cost of living in San Mateo County as a single person is more than $20 per hour. Joaquin saw the need for an organization that could provide access to land along with free- or low-cost education around the skills necessary to start a farm business.
Joaquin is well-positioned to bring the Rancho San Benito project, which was originally going to be called “Farmworker to Farmer,” to life through his role as the Community Liaison for Farm Worker Outreach at Ayudando Latinos a Soñar (ALAS), which provides cultural arts and social service programs for Latino youth and families in Half Moon Bay. He is also collaborating with the Migrant Education Program. He is bringing his experience to the Rancho San Benito project, hoping that it will create opportunities for cultural activities on the land as well and provide a space for students who are interested in agriculture to get engaged.
The project is also deeply personal. While Joaquin is not currently farming himself, he still goes to visit his uncles who farm in Mexico and remembers his father growing sugarcane. “I really enjoy what I’m doing,” Joaquin says. “It’s been a learning experience, revisiting things I already know with a lot of support from the community.”
Bringing Rancho San Benito to Life
The name Rancho San Benito comes from the 1840s, when Half Moon Bay was known by that name. At the time, the city was a very inclusive, mixed community of many different nationalities, including Mexican, Spanish, Irish, Italians, Portuguese, Scottish, Polynesian, Chinese, and Japanese.
Joaquin’s initial step in launching the project was to start finding information about co-ops and accessing land. The first group he approached was the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), a local land trust that works along the Central Coast of California. They responded that at the time they didn’t have any land available that also had access to water, which is a major challenge for farmers in arid parts of the country.
Joaquin then met with local city council members and brought the concept of the cooperative to a council meeting. Follow up meetings ensued with staff from Green Foothills, a local non-profit protect the open spaces, farmlands, and natural resources of San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties, and the local chapter of the Sierra Club. The city, led by mayor Dr. Deborah Penrose, has been very supportive of the project and a close partner in the search for land.
Access to land
There is stark racial disparity between those who work on farms and those who own land in the United States. While 98 percent of farmland is owned by White people, only 3.2 percent of individuals who own the land where they farm identify as People of Color (POC) or Hispanic. The percentage is similar for those who rent land to farm. Meanwhile, 62 percent of farm workers—those who are employed on farms, typically as migrant or seasonal labor—identify as POC and over 80 percent identify as Hispanic. Despite their deep agricultural expertise and the fact that they are responsible for the bulk of food lining grocery store shelves, farm workers are systematically shut out of land access opportunity.
This is a direct result of the long history of discriminatory policies and programs that have facilitated White farm and land ownership, while the labor required to build these businesses goes un- or under-compensated. Learn more about the Bracero program on the Young Farmer Podcast. As Megan Horst and Amy Marion point out in a 2019 article on land access and ownership, “With fewer assets and legacies of structural discrimination, People of Color farmers are at a distinct disadvantage in an era of capitalization and consolidation. Meanwhile, some Whites, likely those benefitting from decades of generational inherited wealth and policies upholding white supremacy, are benefitting greatly from rising land prices and from opportunities to consolidate.”
For many Latinx farmers, one of the key challenges of accessing land, besides the cost, is finding it. Lack of access to land-owning social networks can be a major challenge because farmland often changes hands without ever coming on the formal real estate market and landlords want to sell or rent land to someone they know and trust. Even after finding suitable land, negotiations for favorable lease agreements are mediated by socio-cultural factors, such as language ability and race, that play a role when attempting to align long-term priorities between land owners and farmers. The Farmland Monitoring Project at U.C. Berkeley is working to address some of these challenges by creating an open access resource that makes public information on farmland visible and maps current ownership of farms.
California has some of the highest land prices in the country, especially near the coast, and even trying to find two-to-five acres to launch as a pilot project for Rancho San Benito has been challenging. Securing necessary water rights adds more cost and complication. While the cooperative might have been able to find land to lease for $75 per acre per year without water rights, adding water would increase the cost to $300-400 per acre. Joaquin is separately exploring options for mobile irrigation that will help the co-op navigate this barrier.
Joaquin has been talking with Half Moon Bay city employees, farmland owners, community leaders, and Green Foothills to search for suitable and available land, ideally with the security of a ten-year or longer lease. He gave a presentation for the local Farm Bureau chapter and has been working more with POST to look at parcels the organization owns. A few leads have emerged from all these conversations, including a potential 15-acre location with water rights. Local farmers have been supportive, offering the use of tractors and irrigation equipment once the group finds land.
Getting into the details
Joaquin’s vision for Rancho San Benito is to create a structure that takes care of securing and leasing land, while farm workers are able to focus on building equity and learning about the business of farming. The co-op will be a 501c3 that individuals buy into with their time and seed costs. Any money they make from the crops will go directly to them, enabling them to bring in extra income to their homes. Although the primary focus of the project is farmworkers, who are majority Latinx, Joaquin wants to make sure that the co-op is open to any new community members who are interested in farming.
As a non-profit organization, the co-op will be able to apply for grants to help cover the property lease costs. They will provide tractors, irrigation, and education classes about marketing and budgeting. The farmers will work in teams of 2-3 people per acre, a manageable size to handle in their off-time and establish themselves as farmers. Meanwhile, Rancho San Benito will focus on finding more long-term land security for them. There will be no term limits on how long farmers can stay on the property owned by the co-op to limit the stress that can often come with incubator situations or short-term leases where farmers must worry about moving their business just as they’re getting started.
There are a handful of examples of similar cooperative land access projects around the country that are focused on farm workers, new American farmers, and other populations that have been shut out of land access opportunity. One in particular has been an inspiration for Joaquin is the Agriculture & Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), which is a 110-acre training site located in Salinas, California that provides training, infrastructure, and land to farm workers and aspiring farmers. Other examples include Viva Farms in Washington, World Farmers in Massachusetts, Cultivating Community in Maine, and the Hmong American Farmers Association in Minnesota. Read more about these, and other, examples in Civil Eats.
Integrating Climate Resiliency
Climate change is at the forefront of Joaquin’s mind as he is establishing this project. In California, that means building in resiliency to deal with drought and lack of access to water. He has been worked with the San Mateo Resource Conservation District to get permits for a mobile irrigation system that would allow him to bring water to multiple small lots, allowing farmers in the Rancho San Benito co-op to do more crop rotation and growing on parcels that might not have irrigation infrastructure already in place.
He also plans to incorporate organic farming practices and carbon sequestration into the co-op project, and to link the cycle between livestock and crops. He has also been learning about composting. “We want to maintain our heritage of taking care of the land,” he says. “That’s why we want to go completely organic and re-establish old ways of farming. My grandparents did that—rotating crops with livestock and composting.” Joaquin sees plants as living things with understanding that farmers have a direct relationship with them. “You see how much you can put into your strawberries, your fields, your trees—you put all this in with appreciation and they respond,” he points out.
While the project was briefly on hold due to COVID-19, Joaquin has continued the search and is in talks with a few different organizations. As the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing impacts of the mounting climate crisis have demonstrated, farm workers are both essential and incredibly vulnerable, and the need for this project is stronger than ever. While U.S. COVID relief packages left out these workers, their working conditions exposed them to the disease at higher rates. Existing conditions of low wages, instability, and lack of health insurance have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
The importance of access to land cannot be overstated, especially for the farm worker community. “It is about maintaining our heritage and keeping it alive for new generations,” Joaquin explains. “We have members of the community who are not able to go back to their country. We have roots here now. We can maintain our heritage as farm workers and our heritage in farming. It’s a little bit of our past in the present.”
In the face of mounting development pressure for coastal farmland, Joaquin has a strong call to action: “We don’t want to lose that and be a community with hotels and resorts wondering where’s our food? There’s no way of going back. If we lose it, that’s it.”
He is hopeful that the Rancho San Benito project can show the community that land can be used to grow crops for food, and is even able to see a silver lining in the rapidly changing climate. “We’re looking at the positive side that there are a lot more fruit trees that will be producing. We’ll be able to grow apples, and citruses, and avocados. We have to be able to give the land the opportunity to be able to produce again.”
Rancho San Benito is about more than just land access opportunity. It’s about healing the land. The motto is a “Place of healing, education, and equity.” As Joaquin explains, “We heal the land and the land will provide us with healthy food to heal ourselves and our bodies.”
Policies & Programs
Alongside Joaquin’s efforts, policy is an important tool in addressing land access challenges. In particular, policies and programs that protect farmland and make it accessible to new farmers are very helpful.
In 2019, the California Farmer Justice Collaborative led an effort to pass two bills in California, A.B. 838 and A.B. 986, designed to increase access to land and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers of color in recognition of ongoing legacies of institutionalized racism and discrimination. The two pieces of legislation build off of the progress made by the 2017 California Farmer Equity Act, which established a definition for “socially disadvantaged” farmers and ranchers who have been subject to racial, ethnic, or gender prejudice.
If passed and enacted, A.B. 838 would establish a coordinated, statewide program called the Farmer Equity and Innovation Center as part of the University of California system. This program would be designed to provide support to small and moderate scale farms and ranches, prioritizing limited resource farmers and ranchers and “socially disadvantaged” farmers and ranchers. A.B. 986 would establish a program to provide grant funding to eligible conservation entities—including municipalities, cooperatives, and California Native American tribes—to protect farmland from development and facilitate sales or long-term leases to farmers of color. Although these bills did not pass in the 2019 legislative session, they represent momentum for change.
Many organizations have done strong advocacy and organizing work around immigration reform and farm worker rights for decades, including Farmworker Justice, United Farm Workers, the Alianza Nacional De Campesinas, the HEAL Food Alliance, and the Fair World Project.
In November 2020, Joaquin won a seat on the Half Moon Bay City Council, where he will influence policy change in his city and continue to advocate for farm worker rights.
As of 2022, Rancho San Benito has a home! The group is leasing 76 acres across two plots of land with water from the Peninsula Open Space Trust (Half Moon Bay Review). The new cooperative for farm workers has received support from multiple levels of San Mateo County government and conservation groups as well. This property will provide a space for farm workers to have their own assigned plots of land to grow and sell their crops while learning about the commercial aspects of farming, land management, and sustainable farming practices.
Photo credit: Beth Pielert