Nov 1, 2018California grower taps talents, resources to find success
Javier Zamora came to the United States from Mexico when he was 20 years old. He lived in the Redondo Beach area near Los Angeles.
Most people around him at the time came from different backgrounds. It compelled him to learn the English language.
“I started working by vacuuming in a high-end nightclub in 1987,” Zamora said. “National touring acts would stop. I saw Ray Charles one night; the next night I would see the Doobie Brothers, then I’d see the Four Tops or the Stylistics.”
He held other positions in the hospitality industry, but wanted to try something else.
“Really early on, I was starting to learn how America was made and I also started learning the language,” Zamora said. “I made some housing investments and did well, and during the housing crisis, I lost it all. I lost my luxury car and all of the (possessions) that I owned. I’m glad it happened.”
Zamora’s wife had some relatives in northern California, where the family moved.
“I started farming on an acre and a half of land with just myself,” he said. “My wife and kids would come in on Friday and they would leave Sunday evening to go back home. I had zero money and a little Jetta (car).”
The lifestyle he locked into as a farm owner with an acre and a half in 2012 was a good fit, leading to the establishment of JSM Organics, Zamora told visitors to his operation during the recent North American Strawberry Growers Association Summer Tour in northern California.
“Now, after six years, I farm a little over 100 acres with 35 employees, who make really good money,” he said on his property in the rolling hills of the Royal Oaks/Aromas area of the Salinas Valley’s Monterey County. “I actually purchased this 200-acre ranch with a 120-acre conservation easement. A foundation that manages land in the area put in a couple of million dollars for me to buy it. The other two million, from the bank, I’m paying monthly.“I’m blessed that I’ve been able to achieve the goal of farming on my own, and helping others along the way, growing and producing food for thousands of people,” Zamora said.
“From that little acre and a half, and the passion and eagerness, I found what I really wanted, back to where I came from. My father was a farmer in Mexico. He worked for an American company that grew pickles and cucumbers, cantaloupes and honeydews.”
JSM Organics is a certified organic farm producing strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, vegetables and cut flowers – all of which are organic.
Zamora earned his GED, took college courses and connected with the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) to start his own farm. ALBA helps growers start farming and achieving on their own. It’s a business incubator and school for aspiring farmers.
“ALBA has provided for me the resources that are available for small growers in the area to understand what organic farming is all about,” Zamora said. “It felt like this is what I want to do. This is going to help me.”
Geri Young-Johnson, community relations consultant for Wells Fargo in Fresno, California, worked with Zamora during the process.
“I met Javier in 2014,” Young-Johnson said in a video about ALBA found on JSM Organics’ website. “His farm has grown tremendously. He has been so successful and has been an amazing advocate for farmers.”
Christopher Brown, development director for ALBA in Salinas, California, said, “most of our participants have a background in fieldwork. And that fieldwork, although it’s very, very hard work, it is only seasonal. These folks, with the skills they have, they want to do better for themselves. ALBA is one place they can do that.”
“Farmer education courses meet twice a week and cover a range of topics related to production, business management, marketing, regulations,” said Nathan Harkleroad, ALBA education program manager:
“We’re in the midst of an over $4-billion-dollar-a-year agricultural industry that employs 75,000 field workers. From our perspective it makes sense that farm workers can be a major source of new farmers here in California,” Harkleroad said. “Wells Fargo has been a key partner, not just on the grant side of things and providing that resource, but also coming into our classroom, providing some of the trainings.”
“I found what I wanted and then I started finding resources that were around that made me succeed,” Zamora said. “The number one thing I did was starting to know some people who could help me to farm because an acre and a half was really difficult. From that, I went to three acres, then six acres, 25 acres and 55 acres until I bought my ranch.
“Little by little, I started getting more people,” Zamora said. “I started going to more workshops where I would find people who would be willing to buy my strawberries and vegetables. I found people who would be willing to lend me money, like Farm Link and get certified like CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers). I learned about FSA (USDA Farm Service Agency), through which the government could lend you money at very a low percentage.
“All of those things are around here,” Zamora said. “All I did was kind of take advantage of the resources that had been available to everybody.”
In another video found on JSM Organics’ website, Zamora advocates for organic farming, as well as his Latino heritage.
“The tools for us for organic production have always been there,” he said. “We just weren’t paying attention to how things were done in the past. So to me, organic farming is going back to what happened to me in my childhood and when my family did it.
“It is so important for the USDA and everyone to connect to Latino farmers and what’s going on because we are the one actually doing the work,” he said. “We are the one making the change. There are many Latinos who have been farmworkers and want to be farm owners now. They haven’t gotten the experience, and they just need a little push and a little bit of help. That’s why we have places like ALBA, that gives you that push and the opportunity. I’m really blessed to be able to employ (35 people). Paying your employees the most money you can will make you successful. My operation is successful because of them, not because of me.
“As citizens, I think we need to face reality,” Zamora said. “Let’s try to make sure you protect your resources – your soil, your water, your farmworkers, people who are growing your food, people that are feeding you and your child. Just learn about food and farming. Go and grow something. Do something. Try it. It may change your life.”
Top photo: Javier Zamora of JSM Organics in Royal Oaks, California, grows organic strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, vegetables and cut flowers. Photos: Gary Pullano