Jun 22, 2018
Creating online training for organic crop production in California

Sonja Brodt (Coordinator of Agriculture, Resources, and Environment at UC SAREP) and Sara Riegler (UC SAREP Graduate Student Researcher) recently had the opportunity to visit and record field demonstration videos at ALBA in Salinas.

The videos, all recorded in Spanish and focused on ALBA farmers’ organic farming practices, will be part of a comprehensive online curriculum geared towards beginner organic farmers in California, a project in collaboration with the Organic Farming Research Foundation.

In my current work at ASI, in collaboration with the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) and under the direction of Sonja Brodt (UC SAREP), I am helping to build an online curriculum for California’s beginner organic farmers. The curriculum focuses on both foundational principles of organic farming, including soil and plant science, as well as on emerging research and innovations in organic practices, especially those suited for California’s unique assets and challenges.

Ramiro Cenobio, owner-operator of Cenobio Organic Farms (one of the ALBA farm businesses) shows us his (delicious!) organic strawberries.

One of our main goals in building an open access online learning tool is to serve a wide diversity of California beginner farmers, who are diverse in their cultural and linguistic backgrounds, their abilities to access resources, and their degrees and types of experience – some may be just starting out, whereas others may have a decade or more of experience as farmworkers. We are excited to be providing the curriculum free of charge and, where possible, in Spanish. Another focus of the curriculum is to highlight issues particularly relevant to California farmers by reporting on the research currently being done to solve the most pressing of the state’s agricultural challenges and highlight the work of farmers throughout the state who are innovating and problem-solving in their fields.

To this end, on Friday, June 15 we had the fortune of spending a day at the ALBA (the Association for Farmer Training and Land-Based Learning; alba also means “dawn” in Spanish) incubator farm in Salinas. ALBA owns 100 acres, which is divided between their 40 farmer trainees, who are given training, access to equipment, and business management support, as they work to build a small farm business of their own. At ALBA, we met and recorded instructional videos with five ALBA farmers, who did an incredible job of articulating their practices and choices regarding cover cropping, crop rotation, and weed management. All of the instructional videos – which will be compiled into about ten 5-minute videos that will be interspersed throughout the learning modules – were conducted in Spanish, and will include English subtitles in the curriculum.

Luis Silva of Silva Organic Farms in front of his strawberry field.

The farmers shared detailed descriptions of their practices, as well as their rationale for making the choices that they do. Farmers Ramiro, Luis, Mariana, and Victor shared their experience growing the main ALBA crops, strawberries, celery, and romaine lettuce, using organic methods. Some also shared their experience experimenting with other “niche crops for niche markets”, including heirloom Mexican cilantro, miniature cucumbers, and gooseberries, among others. They also shared their deep passion for farming and excitement for their futures as organic farmers, and expressed gratitude for the opportunities that ALBA has offered them to step out on their own as farm proprietors. One of the farmers, Luis Silva, has farmed at ALBA for four years, and has just recently acquired 20 acres that he, together with two other farmers that he met at ALBA, will move onto next year and begin their own business. Luis exuded an inspiring sense of possibility and collaboration, and it was exciting to hear of he and his partners’ plans.

The visit to ALBA was particularly exciting in two ways – for one, we are thrilled to include several Spanish videos in the curriculum and to contribute to building a base of Spanish language learning materials for the organic farming community in California. Secondly, we are excited to highlight the expertise of beginner farmers and to provide a platform for them to act as teachers for other farmers. Like many “beginner” farmers in California, many of the farmers at ALBA have years of experience in the field, clear depth of knowledge of farming practices, and a deep connection with the land that they cultivate. They are both learners and teachers. Our visit to ALBA highlighted this truth, and it was a joy to hear the farmers share their lessons learned and their passion for their work, to be shared with others who share this passion.

Sara Riegler, University of California

Photo at top: Sonja Brodt records Victor Cortes of La Granjita Orgánica demonstrating his use of the rototiller for weed management.

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