City Farmer, Country Farmer

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Nester Tello dreams of making cheese. Mario Vega wants to leave dishwashing and grow vegetables. Porfirio Rios hopes to farm so his three young girls can leave the crowded city behind. Both Maria Mendoza and Maria Franco plan on raising crops organically.

Each of these prospective farmers, plus two dozen other Hispanic immigrants who live in New York City, began an intensive four-month workshop in January to help them fulfill their dreams–to become the newest farmers of upstate New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The New Farmer Development Project is a collaboration between Greenmarket, a program of the Council on the Environment of NYC, which manages the city’s farmers’ markets, and Cornell Cooperative Extension, which runs the state’s agricultural education program.

For Greenmarket, which has seen its markets grow tremendously–at its 27 locations, 175 farmers and producers sell products to up to 250,000 shoppers a day–the New Farmer project fills a practical need: There just aren’t enough farmers within reach of New York City to fill the demand for fresh produce and meat, particularly as the current generation of farmers ages.

“Many communities put in requests for new greenmarkets,” says Rachel Dannefer, New Farmer’s director. “But we don’t have sufficient farmers to be there.” At the same time, Dannefer says, the cooperative extension was hearing of immigrants with agricultural backgrounds working as “taxi drivers or dishwashers, but who would love to return to farming if they could do it.”

So three years ago, the New Farmer project was born, and now it’s attracting immigrants like Vega. The 35-year-old Mexican native has been working in restaurants in the city for just over a year, after a three-year stint as a farm worker in Canada. He and his wife aren’t crazy about life in the city. “I’m accustomed to being outside,” he says. He found out about the program at a farmer’s market, and now he talks excitedly of chickens and pumpkins. “My dream is to one day work for myself,” he says.

Once a student completes the workshop, the program offers a variety of farming options, from trial plots of land on Staten Island to apprentice jobs to loan programs. The ultimate goal is for workshop graduates to farm their own land. Some of last year’s graduates are already there: Hector Tejada has been growing tomatoes near the Finger Lakes and selling them at a Greenmarket in the Bronx. Another, Sonnia Lopez, will be renting three acres in New Jersey this summer.

The class of 2003–which met for the first time this January, in a conference room in midtown–might be the most diverse yet, hailing from Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador, Argentina, Venezuela, Peru, Paraguay and the Dominican Republic.

Whatever their background, their challenges–and ambitions–are great. “We’d like to build a Hispanic agricultural community in the Northeast,” workshop leader Norma Brenes told the class. “Why not?”