By Joe Pedretti
Rodrigo Cala was born in Mexico City. His father was a teacher and his mother was a farmer. “We grew up on a small farm. Our home was in one place and the farm was a little farther away. We raised spinach, chard, broccoli and Mexican herbs. We also raised pigs. I really learned farming from my mother,” explained Rodrigo.
In 2001, Rodrigo’s younger brother, Juan Carlos, made the economic decision to move to the United States for work. He found work at a factory in Stillwater, Minn., where they make plastic milk bottles. Juan Carlos talked Rodrigo into moving to Minnesota in 2004, to work at a horseshoe manufacturing plant in Forest Lake, Minn. “At the time, the factory job was good work,” noted Rodrigo. “My brother and I tried to find herbs for Mexican dishes, but they were very hard to find in Minnesota, and the quality was very bad when we did find them in the grocery stores. This really got us thinking about getting a place to raise our own produce.”
In 2005, following their dreams to own a farm, Rodrigo joined the Minnesota Food Association for support. There he participated and successfully completed the Big River Farms Immigrant & Minority Farmer Training Program, Organic Farming Training and GAP training over the course of three years. A major component of the training program is getting started by renting land and working with experienced farmers. By the time Rodrigo was finished with the program, he was raising peppers, tomatoes, chard, spinach, Mexican herbs and summer squash–all organically, which was a new concept to him. “In Mexico, we did conventional farming, but I became really fascinated with organic farming, and that is a main focus of the MFA program,” noted Rodrigo. He mainly sold to two accounts–Chipotle Restaurant and a community supported agriculture (CSA) program serving the Minneapolis/St. Paul market. During this time he maintained his full-time job at the horseshoe factory.
In addition to the Minn. Food Association trainings, Rodrigo also took business and marketing classes through NeDA (Neighborhood Development Alliance), the LEDC (Latino Economic Development Center) and the NDC (Neighborhood Development Center).
Around the same time he began the training programs, Rodrigo began to search for his own farm. His main goal was to find one that was close to the Twin Cities, had a house and some farm buildings, and had at least some fields that could be immediately certified organic. The only way to do that was to look at a lot of farms. “A lot of what we liked was priced very high,” he said. “We looked at 30 farms at least.”
In 2008, Rodrigo and Juan Carlos were able to find and purchase their own farm, Cala Farm Origenes, LLC, located in the small agrarian community of Turtle Lake, Wis. “It was not perfect, but it had a good house, farm buildings and 16 acres of tillable land.” There were seven fields, two that were certified the first year and the rest had to be transitioned. “We tried to get a Beginning Farmer Loan from the Farm Services Agency, but it was too hard, too much paperwork. We wanted to find a different way.”
Ultimately, Rodrigo worked with his banker at his credit union to get the loan. With money coming in from their full-time factory jobs to cover a down payment, and a bank willing to work with their business plan, they were able to get the loan they needed for the farm.
The brothers started with mostly hand tools, raising vegetables for the accounts they had developed while renting land, and courting new customers as they grew. They now have a number of accounts including Chipotle Restaurants (onions, peppers), Coop Partners (broccoli, tomatoes, garlic, bell peppers), two restaurants in the Twin Cities, and a small CSA.
“We started the CSA in 2010,” Rodrigo said. “We were working full time, so the CSA was very hard for us. The CSA is stressful and a lot of hard work. For now we only have 25 members. Maybe in the future, when we are not working off the farm, a CSA will work better.”
Rodrigo and his brother have made a number of improvements to the farm since they bought it in 2008. They now have three tractors and have mechanized a lot of their field work. They added a greenhouse and high tunnels to extend their season and have now transitioned all of their fields to organic production. They have also increased production and now focus mostly on five crops: onions, peppers, heirloom tomatoes, garlic and broccoli. “We will start growing field corn and will start working with pigs this season. We have a lot of experience working with pigs in Mexico.”
Both brothers still work full-time off the farm, but Rodrigo has plans to move to full-time farming in three to five years. His brother plans to work off-farm for two more years than Rodrigo does. Rodrigo is married and has four children, all of whom still live in Mexico. His next goal is to be financially able to bring them all to join him here in the United States. His wife has only visited the farm once, and his parents will visit for the first time this year. “Sometimes, when you have a dream, you need to go forward. To change and create a dream, you need to take a risk.”
Rodrigo’s tips for beginning farmers:
• To be a farmer, you need to love farming first.
• Take business classes and develop a business plan.
• Rent land for a few years before buying your own farm.
• Find buyers and develop your accounts before buying a farm.
• Be prepared to work off the farm to generate cash flow for the first few years.
• Be prepared to look at a lot of farms before you find the right one.
• With the right tools and equipment, you have more chances to succeed.
• Record keeping is critical. This information will show the bank you have the skills to succeed.
• Set yearly goals for your business and revisit your plan and adjust for mistakes.
Joe Pedretti (email@example.com) is a MOSES Organic Specialist.