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Progress: Tomatillo virtuosos: Latino farmers find success with difficult crop

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Jose Garcia (left) and Rafael Becerra stand among their tomatillo plants at the Agua Gorda Cooperative farm in Long Prairie. Tomatillos are a cornerstone crop for the farmers. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch2 / 12
Jose Garcia is one of the members of Agua Gorda Cooperative farm in Long Prairie. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch3 / 12
Jaime Villalaz of the Latino Economic Development Center in St. Paul translates for the farmers and offers additional background on the Agua Gorda Cooperative farm in Long Prairie. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch4 / 12
Jose Garcia holds a tomatillo at the Agua Gorda Cooperative farm in Long Prairie. Tomatillos are a major crop for the farmers. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch5 / 12
Rafael Becerra holds a freshly harvested cucumber and garlic bulb at the Agua Gorda Cooperative farm in Long Prairie. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch6 / 12
Jose Garcia pulls back leaves to get a better look at growing peppers at the Agua Gorda Cooperative farm in Long Prairie. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch7 / 12
Tomatillos growing at Agua Gorda Cooperative farm in Long Prairie. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch8 / 12
Tomatillos growing at Agua Gorda Cooperative farm in Long Prairie. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch9 / 12
Jose Garcia points out a growing organic watermelon at Agua Gorda Cooperative farm in Long Prairie. The watermelons will go to the Minneapolis School District when ready. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch10 / 12
Strawberries from Agua Gorda Cooperative farm in Long Prairie. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch11 / 12
Rafael Becerra checks on cucumbers at the Agua Gorda Cooperative farm in Long Prairie. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch12 / 12

LONG PRAIRIE—In 2012, a group of Mexican farmers set out to familiarize themselves with the Minnesota climate, renting six plots in the Long Prairie community garden.

This summer, that same group is expecting to harvest 50,000 pounds of tomatillos from 15,000 plants—and that's just one of the dozens of crops they're nurturing on about 10 acres of land on the southern edge of town. Those green, husked Mexican staples will be used in the making of Minneapolis-based La Loma Tamales, a large factory producing hand-rolled tamales.

For the first time, the farmers can pay themselves from the revenue their produce garners, including from membership in the Sprout Food Hub, and contracts with Minnesota Grown for baby zucchini and the Minneapolis School District for organic watermelons.

It hasn't always been as comfortable for the Agua Gorda Cooperative, however, and it's never been easy. Jose Garcia and Rafael Becerra shared their story with the Brainerd Dispatch inside Garcia's Mexican market and restaurant, Mi Pueblito, located on the city's Central Avenue. The two spoke through an interpreter, Jaime Villalaz of the Latino Economic Development Center in St. Paul.

Villalaz has known the farmers since the beginning—in fact, his work as the agricultural business development program director and focus on greater Minnesota Latino communities sparked the cooperative's establishment in the first place.

Located in south-central Todd County, the city of about 3,300 people is one of several greater Minnesota communities to have recently witnessed a dramatic growth in the Latino population. In 2000, just under 10 percent of the city's population—measuring at just over 3,000 people at the time—counted themselves as Hispanic or Latino. By 2010, the Hispanic or Latino population quadrupled in the city, accounting for 30 percent of the overall population. Villalaz called a community meeting in Long Prairie in 2011, and Garcia and Becerra were among those who attended.

"They come from, in Mexico, a farming background," Villalaz said. "They were interested, curious about the possibility. And they didn't know what was going to happen. But why not give it a try?"

Becerra, Garcia and Garcia's brother Javier were three of the original eight members of the co-op, but four of the members left during the first year because of the financial hardships involved in getting the operation off the ground. The Garcias and Becerra all originally hail from Agua Gorda, Mexico—the namesake for their north country farming business.

"This has been a long transition," Villalaz said. "The city at the beginning told me no, they cannot farm there (in the community garden) because they are going to be doing business. The reality is, they just wanted to learn how to farm and to give it a try, because they didn't have any experience growing vegetables here in this type of weather."

Following success and community support in the first year, the group leased 3 acres of land from the city to begin a larger-scale operation. Although producing a variety of vegetables, they zeroed in on tomatillos—a difficult and labor-intensive crop fewer producers attempt to grow.

"They were looking for options and look at the produce with more demand, and in this particular case tomatillos is a hot commodity," Villalaz said. "The season is so short, and they have to keep track and start right in time of the growing season. That's the only way they can achieve their goals."

Although the cooperative managed to produce 18,000 pounds of tomatillos in the first year, the initial investment and growing pains took its toll the second year. Difficulty in finding markets to sell their produce put them deep in the red, and led to the loss of crop without a place to go. Garcia and Becerra said they wanted to quit—but it wasn't an option.

"At the time, they were not aware of how deep they were learning and they noticed that they didn't have any other options but to continue with the product," Villalaz said. "It was too much they already invested. Not only in money, but so many hours they put in during the growing season. Plus, they were starting to buy small farm equipment. In 2014, they lost many, many pounds—hundreds and hundreds of pounds of watermelon and cucumbers—due to lack of markets."

Complicating matters was the difficulty the group faced acquiring loans to invest in the farming business in the first place, Villalaz said.

"Many of the obstacles are to get the loans," he said. "Especially for people with the language barrier, that's critical."

With so much on the line, the farmers went ahead with another growing season, and then another. The tide began to turn, Villalaz said. In 2015, they purchased an additional 54 acres near their leased acreage from the city.

They connected with Little Falls-based Sprout Food Hub, which assists more than 40 local and regional producers with distribution of their produce. This includes through community-supported agriculture shares and as part of meal programs at six central Minnesota school districts. This meant the farmers no longer needed to seek out individual markets for their fruits and vegetables, instead selling in bulk to the food hub.

This year's newest plants include green beans, garlic and a yellow-fleshed breed of watermelon. The variety of plants they grow continues to expand each year, including everything one would need to make a good salsa among the dozens of crops.

In fact, the Agua Gorda Cooperative farmers plan to produce value-added products like salsa from their produce next, using Garcia's restaurant kitchen. Tomatillos are the main ingredient in green salsas and enchilada sauces found in Mexican cuisine.

Although the tomatillos dominate the farm's landscape for now, it's the watermelons Garcia and Becerra are hoping will become their top draw. Grown organically on a plot just down the road from the rest of the farm, the melons were just larger than softballs in late July. Unlike the finicky tomatillos, Villalaz said watermelons are much easier to grow, and expanding the farm into some of the vacant acreage seems less daunting with a crop that's easier to tend.

"They don't need basically any work," Villalaz said. "You just need to keep an eye on some of the seeds. Their goal is to be able to have the majority of their farm concentrate on watermelons, and whatever produce is without so much work to do. The tomatillo is really, really hard to grow. It needs a lot of attention."

Now able to pay themselves and get their well-tended crops into the hands of consumers, the biggest aspiration for Garcia and Becerra is to provide what drew them to Long Prairie in the first place—good work.

"They wish they can employ people from the community and pay good wages on a full-time basis, at least during the growing season," Villalaz said.

• Business: Agua Gorda Cooperative.

• City: Long Prairie.

• Number of employees: Four co-op members, plus family members who assist with harvesting.

• Interesting fact: The cooperative got its start in the Long Prairie community garden and takes its name from the farmers' hometown of Agua Gorda, Mexico.

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her Bachelor's degree in professional journalism from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. Perkins has interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before joining the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

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