Rosy Ontiveros’s husband, Cesar Delgado, thinks she’s crazy. She likes the cold of winter in southern Maine. She grew up in the yellow-white dry heat of northern Baja California. But now she and Cesar live in Lewiston, Maine, and Rosy has become a farmer.
Beginning her third full year, Rosy feels confident. She’s an ebullient person, ready to talk about her 2/3 acre of market produce growing at the Cultivate Community farm outside Lisbon, Maine. Farming 2/3 acre alone. Trying to make some sort of living doing it, in the abbreviated summers of Maine, requires a heavy dose of ebullience. And maybe a little crazy.
On a Friday morning, Rosy awoke at 5:30am to drive the ten minutes from her and Cesar’s Lewiston home (rented and shared with another recently arrived couple, from Ecuador) to the farm where over a dozen other new farmers, mostly African immigrants, work to grow a living out of the rich soils of southern interior Maine. She harvested bok choi, cilantro, radishes, green onions, green lettuce, and massive pile of beautiful, dense, dark green, bulbously wrinkled spinach. She decided at the last minute that she had enough to sell at the Augusta Viles Arboretum on Friday afternoon. It’s a small market with just a handful of vendors but Rosy deemed it worth the 45-minute drive to get there.
Rosy is part of Cultivating Community’s (CC) New American Sustainable Agriculture Project. She and a handful of other immigrant trainees receive business and farm training during the winter, then tech and resource support, including a half-acre of organic farmland, and wholesale and market connections during the growing season.
Working with immigrant farmers who are new to American culture has its own subtle needs. For instance, Rosy must learn the basic language of the farm stand and the style of displaying her items that appeals to the middle to upper-middle income American farm market shopper. Simple, colorful labels and price cards help with this. But Cultivating Community is actively connecting the dots between low-income residents and the micro farm stands. CC helps Rosy and the others to implement the tools necessary to accept WIC and SNAP dollars at the farm stands. But there’s even more work being done behind the scenes to establish a customer base for the young growers.
Cultivating Community partners with like-minded food-access organizations. For instance, they coordinate with the staff of a WIC distribution service in Cumberland County and Portland, Maine. Each case worker is provided information on farm markets and WIC/SNAP matching dollar programs so he or she is aware of the benefits associated with the micro markets Cultivating Community has set up. Some of the farm stands are even positioned outside of WIC offices for direct contact.
Cultivating Community also works with Portland adult education programs to provide materials and knowledge about the benefits of healthy food and where to find it at the various farm stands. They work with schools, neighborhood associations, churches, and recreation centers.
In a perfect intersection of the two consumer groups CC is aiming for, Rosy works at a farm stand outside the Portland Whole Foods Market. She sells similar produce to that on sale in Whole Foods, but she can offer 1:1 matching WIC and SNAP dollars and Whole Foods cannot. She can also sell at slightly lower prices. Whole Foods does not mind. They appreciate the story of Rosy and other immigrant farmers. It helps their image. And the low-income housing community in the same neighborhood can get double their produce for the same dollar amount as used in a store, Whole Foods or any other.
It makes for a fascinating junction between corporate healthy food sold on a large scale and non-profit, grassroots healthy food sold by one immigrant farmer who can only carry as much as her SUV will hold. Hopefully, Rosy can ease out from under the umbrella of Cultivating Community, forging her own path into the slowly growing micro-farm business scene of Cumberland County, and making room for another new farmer to move into the Cultivating Community incubator.