Angel Garcia, Molalla
Written by Nellie McAdams, iFarm Director
On this drizzly April afternoon, Angel Garcia (pictured with his daughter Anabel) is driving our group of four from his hilltop home to his 18-acre field of strawberries on lower ground. He points out the boundaries of his property and explains with modest pride (yes, such a thing is possible) how green these first-year plants will be within a month, after the field is fertilized and the runners burst out of the original plants.
Our group consists of myself, Lidia, a high school student writing her Senior paper on the struggles and needs of farmworkers, Javier Lara of PCUN, and Ramon Ramirez, President of PCUN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United). Ramon had arranged our meeting to get a sense of Angel’s marketing needs. As Oregon’s only union for farmworkers, nursery workers, and reforestation workers, as well as Oregon’s largest Latino organization, PCUN wears many hats. Not only does PCUN advocate for the health and rights of farmworkers in Oregon and throughout the nation, but it works directly with a number of growers to help them market their products locally. Angel had turned to PCUN for assistance marketing his crops during emergencies in years past, but this year both he and PCUN had decided to be more proactive.
Standing in front of the well-kept mounded rows of strawberry plants, Ramon asks Angel to describe his needs. “Markets and labor,” says Angel in Spanish, “but it all really just comes down to money.”
Like many other family farmers in Oregon, Angel Garcia has had to battle the vicissitudes of markets and weather to keep his farm afloat. Eleven years ago, Angel bought his 35-acre farm just outside of Molalla and named it AC Garcia Farm. But he has yet to accomplish his dream of supporting his family solely from his farm’s income.
After he lost his nursery job in January of 2012, the only thing that allowed Angel to continue his mortgage payments was a 20-year life insurance policy that he cashed in right before it expired. When we met with him in April of 2012, Angel projected a sense of calm and relief because a nursery had just called to offer him a job.
“How many workers will you need to harvest these strawberries?,” asks Ramon in Spanish. “I’ll need to harvest three times, and finish the field in one day each time,” replies Angel. “I’ll probably need 100 workers each harvest day. But if it’s a wet summer like last year and the berries are small, many workers won’t want to stay to work twice as hard to pick the same weight as on a good year.” Angel, like most berry farmers, pays his workers per pound, and one crate of strawberries averages 6 lbs.
Strawberries are a tricky beast when it comes to timing harvest with sales, and Angel knows this from prior experience. Angel almost went out of business in 2005 when he lost a crop of strawberries because a hot spell ripened them farm quicker than his understaffed crew could pick them.
So why did Angel plant strawberries again knowing how difficult they are to get from field to table while still turning a profit? It comes down to upfront money. When Angel’s brother-in-law offered him $30,000 plus labor on the condition that Angel plant strawberries, Angel couldn’t refuse the offer, despite the risks he knew he would bear in the future.
Strawberries are a risky crop, but then most other crops Angel could have chosen are almost just as risky. A farmer is a gambler by necessity, and local weather isn’t the only danger. International markets have almost sunk AC Garcia Farm as well.
Several years ago, Angel had planted this field in cucumbers with the hopes of selling them to a local pickle cannery, as he had done in the past. Halfway through the season, the cannery up and moved its operation to Sri Lanka, leaving Angel with a ripe crop but nowhere to sell it. PCUN had tried to help him move his produce, but they had not been given enough time to prepare their buyers and so most of Angel’s crop was tilled back into the soil.
This disaster happened right when business had been on the upswing for Angel. He was in the middle of a 3-year low-interest loan program from MercyCorps Northwest which provided him with $15,000 per year. Angel had been making his payments, and making them early, for the first two years. The loss of this pickling cucumber crop made Angel decide not to accept the final loan installment because he feared he might not be able to repay it on time if something like this were to happen again.
So this year Angel was hedging his bets. He planted the Toro variety of strawberry, which stores 3-5 days in the fridge, to give him time to market his produce. He had a processor lined up that would probably buy most of his fruit. But, although this processor once contracted Angel as a berry farmer (planting his berries and paying his costs of production, while creating an exclusive contract to purchase all of his fruit) this opportunity was no longer available. Angel hoped PCUN could market the berries that the large processor did not buy – which could vary anywhere between 0% and 100% of his harvest.
In summary, Angel was using borrowed money to plant and harvest a highly perishable crop for three years without guaranteed sales and while working a second job to pay his mortgage. But that’s farming. And Angel loves this lifestyle and the land he works.
Angel drives us back up the hill to his home. In the car he shares some words in Mixtec with Lidia, who is fluent. We park the van and Angel’s daughter Anabel rushes out of the house to greet us. Angel will be pit roasting a pig this Sunday and he invites us to the festivities.
Over the past eleven years, Angel has faced many struggles in financing his property, but these struggles have only strengthened his passion to make his living from his property, raise his children on the farm, and steward this land.