EcoFarm Tour Comes to the Watsonville Slough Farm
Properties, Agriculture
by Steve Pedersen
on February 13, 2024

On January 17th, during a fortuitus break in an otherwise rainy week, the Watsonville Slough Farm (WSF) hosted the bus tour for the 44th annual EcoFarm Conference. Held every year since 1981, EcoFarm is the oldest and largest organic farming conference west of the Mississippi. The main focus of the tour stop was Esperanza Community Farm and Salazar Organic Farm, both of which grow organic vegetables and strawberries on Watsonville Slough Farm’s fertile soils.

The tour attendees gathered for presentations and a question-and-answer period in front of the Heart Barn—the future site of the Land Trust’s Community Harvest project. Mireya Gomez Contreras, the Co-leader of Esperanza Community Farms, opened with a land acknowledgement. She then spoke about Esperanza’s mission to help create a localized food system, through which disadvantaged farmers of color would be fairly compensated for their efforts and local families could access fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Esperanza’s focus is on increasing food security by providing subsidized, locally grown, fresh, organic, culturally appropriate fruit and vegetables to families living in the Pajaro and Salinas Valleys through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

Alma Leonor-Sanchez, project leader for Esperanza’s Farm 2 Cafeteria initiative, described the student-run program, which provides fresh organic produce to nearby Pajaro Valley High School and teaches students how to wash, chop, and portion salads.

The Land Trust’s Working Lands Coordinator, Steve Pedersen, gave a brief history of the property and how the Land Trust came to acquire it in 2009. He discussed the organization’s relationship with Watsonville Wetlands Watch and their joint efforts to restore the wetland habitat surrounding the sloughs within the farm. He then went on to give a brief description of the planned Community Harvest project.

Public access trails are a major part of that project, and it was one of these planned trails that the 100 plus attendees headed out to next. Winding its way along one of the fingers of Hanson Slough, framed by willows and dogwood, the trail brought them to a flat area overlooking Esperanza’s farm fields—now in an overwintering cover crop. It was here that Guillermo Lazaro, Co-leader of Esperanza, and Alejandro Salazar, from Salazar Organic Farm, described their experiences and how they came to be farming at Watsonville Slough Farm. Both got their start working for other local farms and are graduates of the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association’s (ALBA) program in Salinas. Alejandro started leasing seven acres from the Land Trust in 2020 while also farming another two acres in Salinas. This past year, he expanded his acreage at WSF to 24.5 – 24.6 acres in strawberries. The rest is a mix of coastal vegetables such as kale, bok choi, broccoli, artichokes, and herbs. In addition to farming the three acres at the WSF for Esperanza, Guillermo operates his own farm on five acres, also in the Salinas area.

The tour concluded with a heartfelt discussion about what has worked for Guillermo and Alejandro as farmers and the challenges they face. As the attendees learned, growing vegetables is only half of the problem facing small independent growers—finding profitable and worthwhile ways to sell them is the other. Good farmers’ markets can have waiting lists that are years long and the wholesale market is dominated by large corporate farming operations, with deep pockets and thousands of acres of prime farmland at their disposal.

On the production end, small farmers are faced with a lack of capital for the tractors, implements, irrigation pipe and other equipment a grower needs. Access to technical assistance for managing pests and diseases as well as irrigation and nutrient management can also be difficult for a beginning farmer, especially one from a disadvantaged background who is not a native English speaker and who sometimes lacks the technological know-how to navigate unfamiliar platforms.

Finding good farmland is yet another major hurdle. Almost all the prime farmland in this part of the state was spoken for long ago by large farming interests, and beginning growers often must make do by cobbling together marginal pieces that larger enterprises have lost interest in.

It is here that the Land Trust can help. With nearly 250 acres of good farmland, four efficient ag wells and an interconnected system of buried distribution pipe, WSF can serve as an ideal transitional spot, where growers who have gone through training programs like ALBA, and have a solid business plan, can find room to grow in the most literal sense. It is an idea still in its infancy but full of possibilities.

Possibilities that, among other things, the tour attendees were abuzz with–chatting excitedly as they made their way back to their buses along the muddy trail beside the slough. The tour stop was a big success in the way that the best gatherings of this sort often are, it served as a place for people to make connections and to develop ideas in a manner that is hard to replicate.