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From Berrypicker to Organic Farmer—Meet Ismael Perez

por Gaea Denker |

Ismael Perez grew up in Californiau2019s Central Coast region, a prolific agricultural area thatu2019s well known for producing the vast majority of the United Statesu2019 berries, lettuces, artichokes, and other fresh produce. As soon as he graduated high school, Ismael himself got involved in the berry industry by getting a summer job picking raspberries. That summer job rolled into more berrypicking summers, and eventually Ismael was given enough promotions that he was working every day of the week with time off only for attending school at San Jose State University. 

The work-school balance was heavy, but itu2019s what sparked Ismaelu2019s interest in agriculture. u201cWhen I started as a foreman, I was getting pretty good checks every week. So for me it was just a source of income,u201d Ismael recalls. u201cBut then learning about other positions, I started asking more questions. u2018Why is this, or why does the plant do this, or how does the plant get to the point where I see it?u2019 When I was just picking, I never saw the plants when they were planted.u201d

Ismael graduated from San Jose State University with a degree in economics, a subject he was guided toward but didnu2019t meet his needs or career goal to someday own his own business. When a job in economics didnu2019t materialize, Ismael ended up back on the berry farm. By then, heu2019d started getting answers to his questions about agriculture, and the seed was planted in his mind to consider farming on his own. 

The final nudge toward organic for Ismael came when he got a new job spraying pesticides on a companyu2019s crops. u201cIt was for a really big company and it was just a bunch of experimentsu2014not really production,u201d he explains. u201cWe were spraying these pesticides with return intervals of 24 hours, 48 hours, or 72 hours, twice a week! And Iu2019m thinking, u2018Weu2019re spraying these things, and we canu2019t even get near the plant for two to three days, but itu2019s ok to feed people the fruit when it wears off?u2019 Plants are like towels because they absorb everything, so everything that is in the plant, itu2019s in the fruitu2014but thatu2019s ok? Then I left from there to where I work now in organic.u201d 

After months of encouragement from his brother, Ismael enrolled in the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Associationu2019s Farmer Education Course (PEPA) in organic farming practices and farm business management. u201cMy brother actually told me to do it. He said, u2018Iu2019ll pay tuition; once you go big, just pay me back,u201d Ismael explains. Then, Ismael earned a CCOF Foundation Future Organic Farmer grant that put $5,000 toward his ALBA expenses. u201cNow I donu2019t have to go ask him for that money. I know I can pay for it. It helps not having to go ask for that money every time to pay for the class.u201d 

Ismaelu2019s work background continues to shape his experience learning about organic agriculture and adds to his enthusiasm, since heu2019s seen the conventional side up close. u201cI think itu2019s just the fact that you can grow something to the point of harvest without having to destroy the soil more than it already has been in the past,u201d he explains. u201cIu2019ve seen how they treat the dirt here. Pesticides are applied, and they kill everything there. Everything in the dirt, until there are literally no organisms within the soil.u201d

u201cBut in organic,u201d he says, u201corganisms help break down fertilizers to provide nutrients for the plants to grow. Itu2019s just more of the way nature was made to run. Like integrated pest controlu2014itu2019s using nature to control nature, so itu2019s more natural. Itu2019s the way the system was made to function.u201d

This enthusiasm for organic has fueled big goals for Ismael. u201cFirst of all, I see myself working full time toward my own business, not working for someone else. Thatu2019s the number one goal: focus 100% on growing the amount of land I grow on. I want to be farming 20 to 30 acres within five years.u201d 

But his ambitions go even beyond thatu2014Ismael also wants to increase representation of Hispanic communities in agriculture. u201cThereu2019s not a lot of diversity when it comes to owners of big businesses, and changing that is one of my other goals. I want to get my farm as big as I can, whether it takes me 20, 30, 40, or even 50 years. Or hopefully my kids one day like agriculture like me and theyu2019ll keep pushing towards that goal so that one day there will be someone with a Hispanic last name somewhere in the mix.u201d 

u201cItu2019s not easy, especially for someone being Hispanic in and in the United States,u201d Ismael continues. u201cItu2019s hard. Thatu2019s what pushes me to hopefully one day increase the percentage of farm owners like me and hopefully be in a diversity of people who are up in the mix.u201d 

Ultimately, all of Ismaelu2019s experiences came together at the right time with a bit of encouragement to set him on this path of organic agriculture. Even from the beginning, Ismael says, u201cMy grandpa worked in the fields. He grew crops on one of my uncleu2019s lands, and I learned a lot there. I liked it, but didnu2019t really have an interest in it. I guess I was still too young, but now that Iu2019m older, I think [my interest] started back then when I was with my grandpa.u201d  

Financial support like the CCOF Foundationu2019s Future Organic Farmer grants can be the encouraging nudge that makes farmers like Ismael feel validated and soften the financial risk students take on. 

You can help students like Ismael on the path to becoming organic farmers! Donate to our Future Organic Farmer program and give organic students the encouragement they need.