Editor's note: Cap Times intern Rosario Dominguez interviewed Madison farmer Juan Gonzalez Torres in Spanish and translated their conversation for this article.
Juan Gonzalez Torres is a local farmer and owner of Los Abuelos Farley Farm. He learned his farming skills from his family’s business in Mexico, where his family has been devoted to selling and planting produce since he was a child.
Gonzalez Torres arrived in Madison from Puebla, Mexico, in November of 2003 to join his sister. In between, he worked picking grapes in California. In Madison, Gonzalez Torres initially worked in restaurants for about seven years but ended up finding a way to do what he loved, farming.
Gonzalez Torres started Los Abuelos Farley Farm in 2010. It's located in the Linda and Gene Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability in Verona. The farm is part of a farm incubator launched by the Farley Center in 2010. Gonzalez Torres named it in honor of Linda and Gene, who helped him start his farming business.
The farm incubator provides aspiring farmers land, tools, education and marketing assistance to help sell their produce. There are seven farm businesses represented by people of various cultures and Gonzalez Torres serves not only as a farmer but also a member of the center's board of directors.
Gonzalez Torres sells his produce through his Los Jalapeños CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) that formed in 2011. CSA members pay $450 for a weekly box of seasonal organic produce for 20 weeks. You will also see Gonzalez Torres selling his produce at farmer’s markets, El Mercadito in Centro Hispano and in front of the WIC Department of Health office.
He also sells his produce to local restaurants such as Sabor a Puebla, where his sister is the owner.
What motivated you to start the farm?
I always liked producing and I always had that in me. There was an instance where I was riding the bus and I saw a community garden with many people sowing and that caught my attention. There was finally a place where I can possibly plant something. I went to get more information about it and that is where I began sowing for consumption.
I had some seeds not usually sown here but that we use in our food. I planted these seeds, which were originally from Mexico, and began sowing.
The person in charge of the community garden was Janet Parker. She went to a Quaker church. The owners of this property, who were doctors, also went to that Quaker church. They said they had land they wanted someone to use for farming. The Hmong farmers were already here but they only farmed for consumption at the time. They are still farming here until this date.
Many people started wanting the crops I was sowing, primarily things from Mexico. So I decided to look for a place to start farming. That’s when I came here and I began to cultivate with less than a fourth of an acre.
Did you ever think you were going to have your own place to farm in the United States?
I didn’t think so but I would have liked to because that’s what I was doing in Mexico. I wasn’t coming specifically to do this, but if there was ever an opportunity, I was going to take it.
What is the difference between farming here and in Mexico?
There is a lot of differences. In Mexico you can farm all year and here it’s only for a season. But that’s convenient because I can at least get some rest for some time and start working again when it’s time.
I haven’t worked in the past two winters because I have been working a lot, like double shifts. So I do end up very tired.
The vegetables here and there [in Mexico] are different. Many are new to me.
For example, I had never seen kohlrabi. There are also different kinds of zucchinis. I had never seen the yellow zucchinis. I also hadn’t seen the different colored heirloom tomatoes.
There are also other vegetables in the community I wasn’t familiar with, that I brought here. The Americans are now eating squash blossoms, which they hadn’t eaten before. They also started eating herbs like papalo (porophyllum ruderale), pepichas (porophyllum linaria) and even verdolagas (Mexican parsley). I sell these in the market and now Americans are telling me “I have a lot of food in my garden! I am now eating herbs I have in my garden that I didn’t eat before."
Do you think immigrants, specifically Mexican, often have the opportunity to work the same jobs they did back in Mexico?
Well many might be tired of doing the same thing so they look for better opportunities and they leave the fields. For example, there’s many people I have invited to work here but they wouldn’t like to come and get dirty. They prefer working at a restaurant where they might get paid better and work less. Today for example, I’ve been working since the morning because I had a large order to complete.
Who do you sell your produce to?
I sell my produce in a CSA with 49 members and I also sell at farmer's markets on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays. I also sell outside the WIC office where they give food stamps to pregnant women. The women who pick up their checks at the WIC office are able to buy produce from me.
What is a CSA?
That is where people support agriculture. For example, they pay me before I give them the produce and that helps me buy whatever I need to buy, like seeds or organic fertilizers.
Is it like a membership?
Yes, they have a membership with me and I have to give them 20 weeks of vegetable produce.
Are they regular people or businesses?
They are regular people. If they have medical insurance, the insurance will pay about half of that Price. I think they receive about $200 to buy a box from the CSA.
You have a sister who has a restaurant and buys produce from you. Besides that restaurant, is there another one that buys produce from you?
We are part of a cooperative and the person in charge usually sells our produce to restaurants. Many of these are high-end restaurants in Madison.
Besides selling your produce, are you involved with the community in any other way?
Not much but selling fresh produce at a good price and being able to sell to WIC recipients is a way of doing community service. Also, we donate anything left over from the market, to a food pantry.
What advice would you give to another immigrant that comes here and is not content with their job or what they are doing here?
They must find a job they feel content doing. I for example, am happy with what I am doing. People can say that I am working way too much or that I am working in dirt but if it’s a job I enjoy doing, I don’t even feel like it’s a job. So others can do the same thing and look for a job they are happy doing. For example, if they are at a restaurant and they are not comfortable, they should look for another job where they feel comfortable.