Education to empower

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Salinas center offers training for aspiring farmers

(Contributed photo)

Tucked away in the fields off of Old Stage Road in Salinas, a small organization is doing some big work.

The Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) aims to give opportunities to aspiring farmers through various training programs. In the classroom and on the field, students at ALBA are taught everything from crop planning to business management.

"We're kind of a hidden gem," said Executive Director Chris Brown. "It's a pretty small operation we have going here, but it's really working."

ALBA, which was officially formed in 2001, has garnered international attention for its education model. Over the years it has received support from numerous government agencies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Many of ALBA's students are farmworkers and their families, eager to take the next step and begin growing and selling organic produce for themselves.

"We want people to know that an agriculture-based livelihood can be a goal instead of a last resort," Brown said. "That they can find a new way to value their contribution."

The nonprofit offers a number of programs. PEPA, which in Spanish stands for "Programa Educativo para Pequeños Agricultores," is its primary education course. A 10-month bilingual program from November through the following September, it combines classroom study, mentoring and field training on their 100-acre farm.

According to Education Program Manager Nathan Harkleroad, students are also expected to manage a one-acre plot with a group of their peers.

"It gives them real, hands-on exposure to organic farming," Harkleroad explained.

After students complete the year-long PEPA course, they have the option to go even further, leasing land through the Organic Farm Incubator. Over the course of a few years, individuals and families can experience what it's like to run a farm business.

"Farming isn't just a job — it's a way of life," Harkleroad said. "There are so many aspects of it that people don't think about, that you can only understand once you experience it first hand."

ALBA sells its students produce under the ALBA Organics label to various retailers and institutions. Grocery stores such as Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, as well as the Google headquarters and Stanford University have all partnered up with the organization.

"Honestly, we've thrived by being very word-of-mouth," Brown said. "This kind of organization requires working together, and finding people who see its potential."

ALBA usually accepts around 30 applications for its initial PEPA class each year. Brown urges anyone with a passion for growing food and a willingness to make a life change to look into what they offer.

"We want people to come in and talk to us," Brown said. "If you have a strong desire to farm but don't know where to start, or if you just want to develop your skills, we're here."

To learn more about ALBA and all of its programs, visit albafarmers.org.