How a Mexican American Farmer Is Making Organic Food More Accessible

Sin Fronteras is changing the CSA and other distribution models to make local produce less of a luxury item.
(Photo: Sin Fronteras Farm & Food/Facebook)
Oct 30, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Eduardo Rivera has not mastered the millennial art of shameless self-promotion. Instead, he has the sort of charming, salt-of-the-earth temperament one would expect from a man whose work is dictated by the soil and the seasons.

“I feel like I’m publishing a selfie, which I’m not a fan of,” Rivera wrote on Facebook when he linked to a news story written about his farm, Sin Fronteras. “But, oh well.”

In Stillwater, Minnesota, Rivera farms three-and-a-half leased acres seeded with jalapeño and serrano peppers, tomatillos, kale, lettuces, and more—enough veggies to fulfill a CSA, farmers markets, and 12 wholesale clients. The wholesale customers help Rivera meet another goal: providing organic produce to the Hispanic community.

“I felt like I needed to be the example to show that it is possible to own your farm here in the states and have a sustainable and productive business,” he said.

It might seem impossible to some. A U.S. Department of Agriculture 2012 census reported that half of all agricultural workers in the U.S. were Latino, but only 3 percent of farms were operated or owned by Latinos. In Minnesota, only 339 farmers out of the 74,542 in the state identified as Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino, the Pioneer Press reported.

Rivera’s wholesale clients include three natural food co-ops in the Twin Cities, which serve some food-desert neighborhoods, but the prices are high. It’s through his CSA that he is able to have a direct impact, working with customers to negotiate terms of payment. Accessibility isn’t a matter of slashing prices or setting up a sliding scale so much as being a flexible, open communicator who is willing to meet people where they are—and who wants the value of the service he provides recognized.

“I’m very thoughtful of it,” Rivera said. “I know that what I do should be valued as work too, you know. It shouldn’t be cheap. That’s not the point of it. I’m here as an option when people are ready to make that life decision of maybe having a better diet.”

Hispanics in the U.S. have a lower death rate overall than whites but are about twice as likely to die from diabetes and have a 23 percent greater incidence of obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rivera asks for a $50 CSA deposit to sign up for a share and is then willing to take multiple payments over the season or an entire year. In the future, CSA members might be able to work with a group such as the FairShare CSA Coalition, which helps subsidize the cost of farm shares for families who need financial assistance. For now, Rivera also arranges worker shares for those willing to help with weeding or planting, or a barter payment system for anyone who can offer another valued skill, such as web design.

“That creates more of a community that I’m used to,” he said. “When I grew up in Mexico, that’s what it was—it wasn’t about money. It was about the relationships you build with the person or family.”

In 2015 Rivera had six CSA shares; this year he had 20, and 13 of the families were people of color or mixed race, he said. By season’s end, Sin Fronteras’ CSA box, featuring items such as dried black beans and honey from other farms, was functioning as a sort of cardboard food hub to showcase the area’s Latino farmers.

Rivera has all but given up, however, on trying to get his produce into large grocery stores that cater to the Latino community. In a New York Times video for its Taste Makers series, Rivera is shooed out of a store by the owner after asking whether he would be interested in carrying Rivera’s tomatillos.

“I don’t just walk into your house,” the owner says in Spanish.

At that store, Rivera said, the tomatillos are 99 cents a pound and arrive in the back of a truck from Chicago. He said that when he asked how the tomatillos got to Chicago, the answer involved a “big chain of where does it really come from,” Rivera said. His organically grown tomatillos cost $3.75 a pound.

“It’s difficult to go against that system,” he said.

Rivera thinks he has the sales numbers to qualify him for a loan to buy land for his farm, but a proved farming track record isn’t the problem. Because Rivera’s parents brought him to the United States illegally when he was a child, he is not eligible for residency or citizenship, he said, and is unable to apply for loans directly. Through his partner, he has been able to apply for small operational loans with the Latino Economic Development Center in Minneapolis, but to buy land by 2018—his goal—he will need access to larger sums of capital. It is not a problem unique to him.

“Latinos in Minnesota don’t have access to land. We don’t know Latinos that own 100 acres,” Ramon Leon, the CEO and president of the Latino Economic Development Center, told the Star Tribune. “Access to capital is an issue and access to training.” It’s why many Latino farmers in the area have begun to work cooperatively at such farms as Agua Gorda, La Familia, and Manos Latinas.

Working cooperatively to train young farmers of color for agricultural leadership roles is one of Rivera’s ultimate goals for Sin Fronteras. But he wants to get a firm grasp on the sustainability of his business—including managing his own wholesale accounts—before he joins forces with others. Hopefully, he said, continued work with the Latino Economic Development Center will lead to larger loans so that he can secure a 40-acre home for Sin Fronteras. Rivera’s 10-year plan replaces the CSA-box-as-farm-hub system he currently has with a farm-to-table café that would source all its ingredients—produce, honey, dried beans, meat, and poultry—from Latino-run farms.

“Part of the dream with the café is to be able to provide organic tortillas made with real corn,” without preservatives, he said. “There’s not a good healthy tortilla in town, and there’s so much corn here that’s organic and local, and some of us are growing it.”

The café could make visible more of the people who are behind so much of our food.

“There’s a lot more of us,” Rivera said. “We are all just work for somebody else. We don’t have the presence. Who is harvesting the food people are eating?”

“We’re the ones harvesting; we’re the ones cooking,” he said.