As Margarito Palacios drives up the gravel road to his farm, he begins to forget.
He forgets the death of his father, his lack of sleep, and the discrimination he faces on a daily basis. Palacios’ eyes wander over the rows of raspberry and strawberry plants lining the field before him. He parks his red truck in its usual spot, walks to the nearest patch of strawberries, and bends down to scoop up a handful of dirt. Rubbing the soft soil between his fingers, he assesses the terrain before rising from the ground and heading toward the shed. It’s time to work.
Despite being hundreds of miles away from his family in a country where he doesn’t speak the language, Palacios knows he’s home.
In 2008, Palacios joined a local nonprofit organization called Huerto de la Familia, a phrase that means “Family Garden” in Spanish. Huerto works to empower Latino migrants to attain economic self-sufficiency and community integration through organic farming, training, and support. The organization currently serves fifty-five low-income families that come from cities and villages throughout Latin America. Some are familiar with farming, while others were mathematicians, physicians, or professionals in their home countries.
Palacios had minimal agricultural experience when he enrolled, but was eager to learn more. Now, after several years of training and hard work, Palacios serves as a board member, assists in family recruitment, and leads farming classes.
Through Huerto, Palacios has developed confidence and a sense of purpose in the face of economic and social hardship. “Before [Huerto de la Familia] I only thought about day-to-day life. Go to work, get my check—I didn’t think about anything else,” Palacios says. “But now that I’ve found Huerto, I think differently. I am a small business man with the desire to grow, to improve, and to help other families.”
Executive director Sarah Cantril founded Huerto in 1999 with six Latino women and one garden plot. Now, the organization subsidizes three gardens in Lane County, offers micro-enterprise opportunities for families and individuals, and has served more than 400 parents and children.
Huerto offers clients educational workshops, arable land, and a sense of community. Families that apply for the program are given seeds, tools, and plots of land, and undergo organic gardening courses. Group work parties meet twice a month, but families are free to come and go as they please. Some choose to partake in workshops about food preservation and health issues, while others elect to learn independently.
Cantril describes Huerto as participant-driven, as it aims “to create leadership development within the group” by regularly asking for feedback and conducting surveys.
“When I founded Huerto, I wanted this organization to be a refuge,” Cantril says. “I had seen a great deal of food insecurity [in Lane County]. Many Latinos were not able to provide enough for their families on a daily basis … so working with families and training them to grow their own food seemed like a good solution.”
According to recent studies conducted by FOOD for Lane County, nearly half of those who do not have reliable access to food in Oregon are Latino. This hunger problem is reflected in national statistics as well. In 2010, the USDA reported that 13.2 million Latinos were not sure where their next meal would come from. Cantril credits this problem to limited formal education, low English language proficiency, and underemployment in Latino communities.
Palacios says Huerto has helped him move past those roadblocks.
“[Latinos] don’t have the same opportunities to go to school, to get a good job,” Palacios says. “But it’s great to get involved in agriculture because it’s something that I enjoy, that will help me continue on and develop.”
For Palacios, agriculture provides secure employment because the demand for food is constant.
“No one is going to stop eating,” he says. “And where do people get their food? Here.”
Huerto recently instituted Cambios (“Changes”), a micro-development program that offers business counseling and support to families looking to expand upon farming initiatives and create their own enterprises. Palacios and his wife Tina, along with ten other families, pioneered this program in 2011 in collaboration with Heifer International. Over the course of six months, the families came up with a farming plan, deciding what they wanted to grow, how they wanted to grow it, and where they were going to plot their land. Heifer then awarded the group a three-year grant to fund their business, a U-Pick farm they named The Small Farmers’ Project.
At the project’s farm located in northeast Eugene, three families grow organic blackcap raspberries and a variety of strawberries, which they sell directly from the farm to a wholesaler called Organically Grown Company, which then distributes the fruit across Oregon to grocery stores such as Fred Meyer and Sundance Natural Foods. The farm spreads across six acres and is lined with rows of raspberry and strawberry seedlings that are nurtured by experienced, caring hands. Near the entrance, a newly constructed shed that was built by students in the University of Oregon’s Design Bridge program serves as both a storage unit and a picnic area. Families use the space every few weeks or so during the summer for potlucks and musical gatherings.
For these families, The Small Farmers’ Project is much more than a farm; it’s a second home.
“This project has given me the power to voice to others that we Latinos are here to do good things, to work,” Palacios says. “By helping ourselves and helping other families, we can change the world and change lives.”
Upon immigrating to the United States at age 19 from Chiapas, Mexico in 1994, Palacios knew no English, had no work, and relied solely on his faith in finding a better life to keep himself going.
“I came to the United States because I wanted to help my family and support them,”
He left ten brothers and sisters behind in Mexico, along with his wife, Tina. Two of his brothers lived in Los Angeles at the time and secured Palacios a job there working in construction, which enabled him to send money back to his family. However, Palacios soon became tired of the city’s traffic and crowded living conditions and in 2007 decided to move to Oregon, where there were more job opportunities and a cooler climate.
Tina, who joined Palacios in the U.S. three months after he settled in California, had family in Eugene who helped support the two upon their arrival. The couple spent their nights cleaning offices in the city’s downtown business district and working on Huerto’s farms during the day. Although these jobs enabled Palacios and Tina to put food on their table and a roof over their heads, being Latinos in a predominantly white community often proved difficult.
About a year ago, Palacios was pulled over in his truck by a police officer in what he felt to be an act of racial profiling. The officer claimed Palacios had a broken license plate, but when Palacios asked to assess the damage, the officer denied his request and wrote Palacios a ticket—one that contained no written offense.
“There are people that think badly of [Latinos]…that carry racism in their veins,” Palacios says. “But just like in every race, there are bad people, and there are good people too. And I consider myself a good person, who contributes and helps more than anything.”
Some members of The Small Farmers’ Project have noticed cars pull up to their UPick farm and turn around when they see who is working there. Others, like Palacios, have been pulled over by police officers for seemingly dubious reasons. Cantril confesses that she has received hate mail for her work and that the gardens have been vandalized in the past.
“I may appear happy on the outside, but on the inside I carry the same sadness that many other Latinos feel who are here fighting for a better life,” Palacios says.
Huerto de la Familia has become a safe haven for its farmers and gardeners, an escape from the stresses of daily life for Latinos living so far from home. In this sanctuary, Palacios can get lost in his farm work and forget about the bitter stares and traffic tickets.
“When I ask families about the benefits of the garden, the first thing they say is the harvest,” Cantril says. “The second thing they always say is it distracts them from their worries.”
Despite working on the farm for up to seven hours a day, cleaning offices at night, participating in biweekly farmers meetings, and managing his own business, Palacios gives whatever he can back to his community. He writes and sends money to a boy in a rural community in Ecuador and looks for ways to translate lessons learned through Huerto back to people living in Mexico. Palacios looks back fondly on the years he’s spent in the United States, remembering both his successes and his setbacks. As he prepares the soil for another year of harvest, he looks ahead to the future—unsure of what it will hold. Just like the seeds he plants, Palacios has grown and flourished under Huerto’s care.
“Now I have a better future,” Palacios says. “And it’s all thanks to Huerto de la Familia.”
Infographics by Rebecca Schnoor and Lauren Geschke.