Adelante Mujeres receives $400,000 sustainable farming grant
As the average age of farmers across the country increases and farmers face new environmental challenges, the need to train the next generation of farmers in sustainable agriculture grows every year, according to Alejandro Tecum, sustainable agriculture education manager at the Forest Grove-based nonprofit Adelante Mujeres.
The nonprofit, which seeks to empower low-income Latino women and their families, was recently awarded a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to address the demographic and environmental challenges facing the agricultural industry.
The grant will support the efforts of Adelante Mujeres and five other organizations across Oregon to empower young minority farmers by giving them the tools necessary to enter the agricultural industry and farm sustainably.
"This work is important because we will be able to train and educate more Latino farmers to become successful farm owners," Tecum said.
Through Adelante Mujeres' sustainable agriculture program, Tecum offers two 12-week farming courses taught in Spanish, one-on-one coaching, technical assistance, and farmer networking events.
Tecum is originally from Guatemala, where he became familiar with conventional agricultural practices that are widespread in the United States.
He said conventional farming comes with a cost, as techniques designed to maximize production deplete soil and pollute rivers and streams.
"Everybody needs to eat, but we need to keep growing food in a way that doesn't harm the environment, especially now with climate change," Tecum said.
He said one of the most important sustainable agriculture practices he tries to instill in farmers is not tilling their soil.
Farmers have long been accustomed to tilling their crops, Tecum said. Tilling aerates soil, helps distribute nutrients evenly, smooths out soil and removes weeds and unwanted roots.
However, Tecum noted, it also allows nutrients and organic materials to run off when it rains, and it can kill arthropods and microbes that aid in soil health. That reduces the long-term productivity of soil, prompts more fertilizer use and decreases the nutrient contents of food.
Tecum said when he first started learning about no-till farming, he was skeptical, like many first-time students in his course.
"After 15 years of practicing no-tilling, now we are convinced that tilling is not necessary," he said.
Tecum and his students go out and collect soil from tilled farms and untilled farms, and then they come back to the class and put the soil under the microscope to observe characteristics such as its microbe content.
"Microbes are important because they do some of the things people want to happen with tilling," he said. "What is say is that we take care of the soil by mimicking nature."
Tecum said he's excited about the program's new funding because it has been difficult to get many sustainable farming techniques to catch on.
Most of the people in his classes are experienced Latino farmworkers, he said, and he wants to look for new ways to bring in first- and second-generation Latino immigrants who feel pressure to go into other industries.
Of the more than 3,100 farm producers in Washington County in 2017, only 4.3% of them were of Hispanic or Latino origin, according to the USDA Census of Agriculture. Meanwhile, Latinos make up about 17% of the county's population, according to 2018 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, and the demographic is growing.
Additionally, about 31% of farm producers in Washington County are 65 and older, according to the USDA.
Tecum said he plans to use the new program funding to incorporate activities and outreach that will show young Latinos that sustainable farming can be a viable career.
He acknowledged that market pressures have slowed the uptake of sustainable farming, and a lack of access to land has limited Latinos from starting their own farms. But he said programs like his are designed to break down those barriers.
Andrea Chunga-Celis, grants manager at Adelante Mujeres, said, "Alejandro's passion for sustainable farming is crucial to the program."
She said starting any business is hard, but using the grant funding to create support networks across the state will help young Latino entrepreneurs become new farmers.
The other organizations included in the grant were Rogue Farm Corps in Ashland, Huerta de la Familia in Eugene, The Next Door in Hood River, Our Table Cooperative in Sherwood and Zenger Farms in Portland.
Chunga-Celis said she thinks the grant will have an impact because it's multiyear funding.
"Farming is so unpredictable year to year, so it's important that this will be supported for a longer-term," she said.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley helped secure the grant funding through his work on the Senate Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee.
"This grant will support Adelante Mujeres' incredible work investing in people of color who want to start their own farm," Merkley said in a statement. "These beginning farmers and ranchers will strengthen our communities, grow our economies and contribute as owners to our vital agricultural sector."
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