ALBA Multi-tasks to Grow Farm Businesses

Nearly ten years into its mission of incubating farm businesses among limited-resource and beginning farmers, the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) located in Salinas, California, conducts classes in organic agriculture and small business skills, leases farmland in one-half-acre to 15-acre parcels, helps craft local food system infrastructure and policy, and buys and sells produce.

The breadth of its activities requires a balancing act not unlike that demanded of the farm entrepreneurs that ALBA seeks to grow.  “Our biggest challenge is determining how best to focus our energy,” says Brett Melone, Executive Director of ALBA.  “Education, land leasing, and farmer incubation is definitely the core of what we do.  Then you add the produce wholesaling.  Then you add the hands-on and policy work to develop food systems.  It’s all so important.  The challenge for us has been being spread a bit thin.  But, at the same time, that’s the reality for these farmers; that there are so many barriers.”

Engaged on multiple fronts, ALBA has discovered complementarities.

Just a year after beginning its education and land-leasing programs, ALBA launched ALBA Organics, a wholesale operation that aggregates, cools, and sells produce purchased primarily from ALBA tenant farmers and other socially disadvantaged farmers.  Its goal was to craft a produce marketing model that both treats small farmers fairly and is financially stable as well.  “When we started ALBA Organics, one of things we were trying to address was the fact that farmers were being taken advantage of by brokers,” says Melone.  “The farmers often basically provide product on consignment, and they don’t know what they’re going to get.  Brokers charge for cooling, boxes, and all kinds of stuff.  Farmers can actually end up with a bill.  For the most part when farmers deliver their product to ALBA Organics, they know what price they are going to get.”

Twenty to twenty-five percent of ALBA Organics’ produce purchases are from larger independent organic farms, and this contribution from more established farms rounds out ALBA Organics’ offerings and extends its marketing reach.  “By bringing on those farmers, it opened up new doors for our marketers,” says Melone.

ALBA Organics sells to universities, corporate campuses, hospitals, retailers, and other wholesalers.  Sales for the fiscal year that ended in September totaled $2.1 million.

ALBA Organics now not only pays for itself, it also augments the education of ALBA farmers through discussions around contracts, harvest scheduling, and packing and quality concerns.  This real-time training decreases the classroom burden of ALBA staff and reduces the number of staff hours that ALBA must fund through grants.

Of the graduates of ALBA’s organic farming training program who started their own farms, 80% are still farming after five years.  However, one half to two-thirds of ALBA graduates take jobs with other agricultural companies rather than farming on their own.  The growing presence of ALBA graduates in the Monterey County agricultural workforce has opened the potential for collaboration between ALBA and the county’s larger agricultural entities.  “We used to be looked at as taking people’s good workers away,” says Melone.  “Now we have workers from these companies coming to our training with the intent of returning to their companies with more skills.”

Along with the farm workers and limited-resource beginning farmers that comprise ALBA’s target clientele and fill at least 80% of the seats in the classroom, college graduates are finding their way to ALBA.  Their presence lends to new synergies.  “There have been partnerships that have been generated because of the diversity in the class between the folks that have the farming knowledge and experience but not the capital, and the folks that have capital and interest but little background,” says Melone.

All course materials at ALBA are bilingual, and there is a sliding-scale tuition ranging from $250 to $2500 for its six-month long course of evening agricultural classes.

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