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A member of the Hispanic Women’s Farming Proyecto
A member of the Hispanic Women’s Farming Proyecto. Photo by Anna Sutterer
Eat and Drink

How Immigrant Women Are Finding Community, Economic Opportunity on a Colorado Farm

Buena Vida in northern Colorado provides agricultural scholarships and professional development to immigrant women.

*Editor’s note: The names of Proyecto participants have been changed for their privacy.

At Buena Vida Farm, a peaceful tract barely tucked away from I-25 and west of Windsor, four women gaze at rows of pumpkins, select summer squash, and ripe, red tomatoes. Their pants, long tees and sweatshirts protect them from both the late summer sun and cool breeze of an almost-fall morning.

One of the women, Alejandra Martínez*, came to this place by way of a virtual leadership class from a local family center. Chatting online with a peer, she learned of an opportunity to grow produce, learn about business, and earn her sales’ proceeds—but there’d be lots of sun, heavy lifting, and weekly commitments on top of her current schedule. She thought: “It’s for me.”

“It’s really beautiful work,” Martínez says. “When one comes here, they forget about so many things; about the stress, the running around. You come here, and it’s a moment for yourself.”

Martínez and the other women are part of the Hispanic Women’s Farming Proyecto, which began in the early summer of 2020. MaryLou Smith, co-owner of Buena Vida, had retired from her work as a water policy specialist for Colorado State University and wanted to unite two new ambitions: expanding her tree farm’s crops to include vegetables, and helping immigrant women with advancement opportunities.

Today, the Proyecto employs four women year-round with variable part-time hours through a scholarship program. The current participants have been with the Proyecto for almost two years and plan to continue, hiring others to help in the future.

Smith met two of the other participants in her community—Juana Pérez through a colleague, and María Sánchez while teaching English classes. Pérez and Sánchez were interested in working on the farm, and together, the three women devised a plan. Buena Vida would provide land, water, and tools for participants to grow and sell produce, while inviting immigrant women to work the land with hands-on training. Smith would also arrange for CSU professors and industry professionals to come teach agriculture skills and business. The gig would require women to visit the farm once a week, but they would have the flexibility to work around their regular jobs. Smith couldn’t pay them directly for privacy reasons, so she set up scholarships, making the arrangement akin to a graduate program or internship.

“It’s important to us that the amount of time they’re putting in comes close to $20 per hour, because we really believe that immigrants are taken advantage of and don’t get good pay,” Smith says. According to Sánchez, it’s true. Sánchez came to the U.S. with the expectation that she’d work for six months and earn enough money to return to Mexico. She’s been here 20 years, all the while being paid a meager salary. “It’s the reality for so many people,” she says.

This year, Smith connected the Proyecto with a 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsor, Fort Collins Community Action Network, so she could apply for grants. So far, the program has received around $18,000, which compensates the women for the hours they spend at the farm. “I think it’s because the funders see this not like giving a gift, but it’s really changing attitudes,” Smith says. “It’s helping change the way these women look at themselves, and then hopefully the way the larger Anglo community begins to look at these women.”

So far, Pérez and Sánchez, along with Martínez and their fourth member, Cristela Rodríguez, have planted and harvested about half a dozen vegetable varieties. They’ve learned about soil health, pests and diseases, and water management. They’ve connected with market organizers, grocery stores, and food delivery programs to sell their products. Though speaking very little English, they’ve sold their goods through farmers markets, grocery stores, and door-to-door from Boulder and Loveland to Fort Collins and Greeley.

Martínez, who drives most of the deliveries in her minivan, feels best about providing her family with fresh food. Her husband and three daughters—two are CSU students and one is in elementary school—tell her: “‘Mom, what a good salsa, what a good chile, what a good soup.’” Martínez says their grateful responses make juggling the Proyecto’s hours in the sun and managing her own tamale business worth it.

For Sánchez, growing food is a “thing of the spirit.” She gasps and her eyes grow wide as she talks about seeds sprouting into a delicious harvest. True “promotoras” (community health promoters), Sánchez and her Proyecto colleagues share their bounty with neighbors. They even received a grant through Farm to Early Childhood Education to teach children how to grow their own nutritious food on Buena Vida soil.

“My success would be to make future generations aware of the importance of the farm workers,” Sánchez says. “Without their work, there’s no food on the table.”

For Pérez, who grew up on a farm in Guatemala, the Proyecto is sort of a return home. During her first two years in the U.S., she worked double shifts at a restaurant; from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. and then back again at 6 a.m. Now, she’s helping lead her compañeras in tending the crops, and, according to the others, falling in love with this year’s bountiful tomatoes. She taught Smith the medicinal benefits of nightshade (known as hierba mora in Guatemala) and found a bakery/café, Panaderia Quetzal in Evans, to sell it. The work is a welcome occupation for Pérez, who is currently seeking asylum and supporting two kids in the U.S. and two back home, all ages nine to 19.

Pérez’s compatriot Rodríguez also uses the program’s extra funds to help her kids back home—hoping maybe one day she can pay for them to reunite. Meanwhile, “here we are, hoping in God,” she says. “We are here because God has permitted it. Each one of us has set goals to achieve and have great success.” For Rodríguez, one of those goals is to become an entrepreneur.

When the program began, Smith asked the four women to work at the farm once a week, planting in April and harvesting in October. But the group’s enthusiasm, desire to grow more and take ownership of the project meant the Proyecto needed to expand. After the 2021 harvest, Smith and her colleagues will begin plans for the new year; they’ll write more grant proposals and advertise for two new participants to join the program. During the winter, the women will learn how to keep the books and take English classes through Front Range Community College.

Jason Webb is an agronomist and volunteer consultant for the Proyecto, and during visits to Buena Vida, he’s helped the group apply agronomy (the science and technology of crop management) to their operation. Already, the Proyecto women have learned watermelons don’t sit well next to pumpkins or beans because they need much more water.

“I like the work ethic and effort that I see, and just a willingness to learn,” says Webb, adding that if they were two hours closer, he would have them join his small farm in Sterling. After two years of study and experiments, Webb says the four women will be capable of managing their own farmers market or co-op, and could hire people to pass on their knowledge.

“The care that they take really pays off at the end of the day,” Webb says. “To see them defining success in their own way, I’m kind of proud of that. Maybe I was a part of that. I don’t know. I don’t take much credit for what they’ve done.”

Neither does Smith, despite being an essential part of the project’s logistics.

“I am quite aware that in our country, we have all kinds of white privilege that we are not even aware of, and how it might affect how we’re working with those from other cultures,” she says. “So I’m always trying to be on alert, for them to not be looking up at me as their superior—yet it’s my farm that’s providing the land and the water, and I administered the educational program. There’s a balance I feel we’re handling well, and that’s a good learning experience for them and me.”

Smith receives no financial gain from the program, but enjoys practicing Spanish while chatting with the women about their families and checking up on each other’s well being.

“We have a personal motivator; Mrs. MaryLou always transmits her energy to us,” Martínez says. “Sometimes we don’t even realize we breathe anew; that we woke up well; we give thanks for new life until she tells us, ‘Today is a beautiful day, right?’ and then we say, ‘That’s right, I hadn’t seen it like that.’”

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