Above Photo: Delia Jovel and members of Tierra Fértil Co-op plant seeds and examine their crops on June 13, 2021 in Herdersonville, NC. (Juan Diego Reyes)
In addition to building economic security, small-scale cooperative farms in North Carolina are strengthening community and a sense of home-grown pride.
On Sundays, Edith Alas Ortega travels 20 minutes from her home to a farm field in Henderson County, North Carolina, and takes a deep breath. “There’s a mental and physical healing that happens out here,” she said in Spanish. Ortega is one of five members of Tierra Fértil Coop—“fertile ground” in English—an agricultural, worker-owned cooperative for and by Latinx immigrants. The group—three Salvadoran and three Mexican immigrants—meet every week on their one-acre parcel in Hendersonville that provides vegetables for the families involved as well as enough for resale, with a focus on culturally appropriate ingredients for the Latinx market.
Ortega marvels at the first strawberries of the season on a recent morning in June—just 40 for now. But dozens of bushes shoot out of mounds that she helped shape and cover in black plastic, just waiting to bloom into berries.
“I can eat something I planted with my own hands,” she said. “I leave feeling satisfied that I did something to make myself feel good. And to know I’m doing this with other people, face to face in the outdoors. . . it fills me with happiness.”
The group began tilling and prepping the soil a year ago. Now, Tierra Fértil founder Delia Jovel and Ortega show off neat rows of corn that stretch toward the horizon. Dozens of tomato varieties, including tomatillos, and chili peppers grow tall, and root vegetables including beets and carrots sprout from another. Potatoes, broccoli, eggplant, and kale are interspersed with vibrant marigolds. But the team said the crop with the most traction is cabbage—they have at least 300 heads of cabbage growing in the field.
“We use a lot of cabbage,” said Jovel and Ortega, both from El Salvador. It’s the main ingredient of pickled curtido, a spicy, vinegary condiment that tops every pupusa in town. The women dream and scheme of creations using these ingredients native to their homeland.
Most of the produce the cooperative grows and harvests is sold to individuals within the local Latinx community. Jovel estimates that in the last year they have sold 20 bunches of cilantro, 12 pounds of strawberries and 150 beets per week, depending on the seasonality of the product.
Tierra Fértil’s modest plot is on Tiny Bridge Farm, land owned by farmers Ed Graves and KP Whaley for 10 years. They work full time in other careers—Graves as a librarian, Whaley in community media. But they both grew up on farms; Whaley said supporting Tierra Fértil with access to land was a no-brainer. Tierra Fértil and Tiny Bridge Farm share a land-use agreement based on mutual aid, according to Jovel.
“We’re all beginning farmers, learning from each other,” Whaley said. “I’m excited about the community [Tierra Fértil is] building. And I’m excited to see how our community in Hendersonville is responding.”
Tierra Fértil started in the middle of the pandemic. Through a grant provided by the Henderson County office of N.C. Cooperative Extension, two co-op members became master gardeners this year. “The pandemic was a push,” Jovel said, “and I thought, ‘Maybe this is the right moment for a project that incorporates access to income, community organizing and food.’”
Jovel had the support of the county’s extension agent, Steve Pettis. The office gave them free seeds to help launch their first season. “I’m always excited about people who don’t let anything get in their way,” Pettis said. “Delia is one of those people.”
Even though Latinx people are 1.7 times more likely to start a business in the U.S., they own just 3 percent of U.S. farmland, according to the 2017 USDA Census. The data shows 112,451 Hispanic producers, or 3.3 percent of the country’s 3.4 million producers, compared with 3.2 million who are white—95 percent of the U.S. total.
“So much of the agricultural knowledge stays in the gringo community,” Jovel said in Spanish. “And it’s because our community often feels incapable in a foreign country. Even if they have the knowledge or have farmed in their home countries.”
The country’s wealth gap affects Latinx would-be farm owners. Inherited wealth—a driving factor of property ownership and farming—is 80 percent white. Latinx farmers also experience discriminatory lending practices across the country.
Only 14 farmers out of more than 770 in Henderson County identified as Hispanic in the 2017 USDA Census. Ten percent of the county identifies as Hispanic compared to 9.6 percent of North Carolina’s general population Throughout the state there are 487 Hispanic-identifying farmers who fully own their land, according to 2017 data.