Sarita Role Schaffer, Director of Viva Farms (PSFN member), recently shared with us an inspiring story about a member of Viva Farms Incubator and Growers Collaborative. Inspired by the accounts of Nelida Martinez life, we asked for permission to share this story with the broader food community on our blog. We are grateful to Sarita and Nelida for allowing PSFN the opportunity to share this story and perhaps inspire others.
Viva Farms including growers La Casita Roja, NW Green Farm and Pura Vida have all participated in the Skagit WholeSale Market this year. Of the market Sarita says, “The chefs from both (Skagit) hospitals and a few restaurants have been ordering from our growers consistently. The Skagit Wholesale Market has proven to be our best venue yet for attracting the ideal type of buyer for our farms.”
In addition to produce, Pura Vida sells fresh corn and flour tortillas, and pan de oaxaca, a slightly sweet bread used for tortas. All prepared foods are made in a certified commercial kitchen by Nelida Martinez. Orders can be placed at the Skagit WholeSale Market Thursdays for pick-up Saturday at Mt Vernon Farmers Market.
Pure Nelida (as written by Sarita Role Schaffer)
Nelida Martinez is a woman participating in the Viva Farms Program who re-inspires me every time I see her.
Nelida was born in a subsistence farming community in Oaxaca, Mexico. She escaped an abusive alcoholic household at 14 by going to live with her (soon to be) husband’s family, who took her in, then took every opportunity from that moment forth to remind her what a burden she was for them.
After marrying at 16, the young couple migrated north to the US in search of a better life. They found farm work. They toiled 12 years on the vast pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide laden farms of California, then headed further north, seeking less scorching farm work in the lush Skagit Valley. They added children to their household until they were nine in all…plus a steady stream of cousins, brothers, nieces, nephews, uncles, and others who’d joined them in their search for the good life. With family, Nelida’s work multiplied: farm worker by day, Oaxacan mother/wife by night (in traditional Oaxacan culture women are expected to perform ALL cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, and other household tasks, without help from their husbands, even if they also work outside the home).
Life in Washington wasn’t exactly the American dream, but Nelida knew it was better than the nightmarish situation her relatives faced back in Oaxaca, where cheap agricultural imports (newly available under NAFTA) were unraveling the social, economic and ecological fiber of nearly every subsistence farm community.
Then, one day, things took a turn for the worse.
One of Nelida’s sons fell violently ill. When the traditional herbal remedies she learned from her grandmother failed, Nelida pleaded with her husband to take the boy to the hospital for tests. Her husband refused, petrified of hospital bills (he had no health insurance) and of being fired for missing work. But a man’s greatest fear is no match for a mother’s love. For the first time in her life, Nelida disobeyed a man. She looked her husband straight in the eyes and told him (surely in Mixtec, but she later recounted for me in Spanish), “Si tu no eres lo suficientemente hombre para salvar tu hijo, yo mismo le llevare’ al hospital.” (If you’re not man enough to save your son, I’ll take him to the hospital myself.) She didn’t have a driver’s license at the time so she carried him to the closest hospital.
The doctors diagnosed the boy with late-stage leukemia and ordered treatment immediately. They told Nelida that if she’d waited even a few more days it may have been too late. Nelida quit farming and dedicated herself to her son’s recovery. She accompanied him back and forth from Mount Vernon to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle for weekly chemo treatments. Between treatments she made and sold tamales, empanadas, pan de burro, fresh tortillas, anything friends and local Mexican stores would buy. She needed every penny she could earn for the cancer treatment, which she was determined to pay for herself.
When her son achieved remission, Nelida did not return to being a farm worker. She was absolutely convinced that her 20+ years of exposure to agricultural chemicals had caused her son’s leukemia. She vowed to never again expose herself, her family, or anyone’s family to agricultural venenos. (poisons) Nor did she quit farming; she stepped up the organic production she’d always done at home. She crammed pots and trays of vegetables and herbs into her kitchen window-sills, into her tiny balcony, her front doorstep, anywhere she could put them. When a community garden was created in her Catholic-subsidized farmworker housing complex, Nelida was the first to sign up for a plot. She taught the Americorps volunteer how to jerry-rig irrigation using a old hoses, a machete and duct tape. She was delighted with her garden plot but wanted more ground. Couldn’t she just use the whole 1/2 acre, she would ask the residential director. That would be enough space to feed her family and even sell a bit of surplus.
That’s when I met Nelida. When she told me how she had transported special plants and seed with her from
Oaxaca to California, tended them in the migrant camps and then moved them up to Washington with her, I knew she was an ideal candidate for the new Latino farming program I was helping WSU Skagit Extension launch in the valley.
Nelida enrolled immediately in our first bilingual Sustainable Small Farming and Ranching course. She graduated and signed up for the more advanced Farm Business Planning course, in which she developed a business plan for a three acre diversified organic farm. She now leases 1 acre at Viva Farms (Washington’s first bilingual farm business incubator) and two acres at a second site. Her goal is to purchase 10 acres with a house, where she can live and expand her organic produce sales that now complement her already established food business.
Out of 24 class-nights and 5 farm field trips, Nelida missed maybe three – a feat for any mother, wife and sole proprietor of two start-up businesses – a herculean feat for someone whose formal/classroom education was cut short at 2nd grade and replaced by farm labor.
When we met to develop a name and logo for Nelida’s one-woman organic farm and food business, I could think of only one name to encapsulate her brand personality: PURA NELIDA, like the sayingpura vida but with Nelida as the life force (also a reference to the purity of organic farming). I asked Nelida what symbolized pura vida* and purity for her. She thought for a moment then smiled and replied, “una cebolla blanca“(a white onion). So that’s what she is seen cradling in the logo we designed for her farm. (attached)
So to those who still think organic food is a passing yuppie fad, and to those who know it’s not but feel discouraged by how long it has taken for us to farm as if we love and cherish life…I offer one of Nelida’s organic white onions: let its crisp, sweet, spice and purity cure you of your ills. Soon you’ll understand why, when I stand and behold Viva Farms, I am apt to repeat “Pura Vida…puuuura vida…” over and over again, like a mantra.
*Pura Vida literally means “pure life”, but the meaning is closer to “full of life”, “purified life”, “this is living!”, “going great”, or “cool!” It can be used both as a greeting and a farewell, to express satisfaction, or to politely express indifference when describing something. The phrase has become widely known; this highly flexible statement has been used by many, especially Costa Ricans (and expatriates) since 1956. Some foreigners view the phrase as an expression of a leisurely lifestyle, of disregard for time, and of wanton friendliness. However, many Latinos use the phrase to express a philosophy of strong community, perseverance, resilience in overcoming difficulties with good spirits, enjoying life slowly, and celebrating good fortune of magnitudes small and large alike.
Sarita Role Schaffer
Co-Founder and Director, www.GrowFood.org
Director, Viva Farms (www.VivaFarms.org)
Regional Coordinator, WSU Latino Farming Program
Viva Farms is a project of GrowFood.org, an international non-profit dedicated to recruiting, training and financing the next generation of sustainable farmers. The Viva Farms Incubator Program strengthens new and immigrant farmers by helping them overcome four common barriers to farm entry: 1) access to education, training and technical assistance; 2) access to capital and credit; 3) access to land; and 4) access to markets. Viva Farms offers bilingual Cultivating Success sustainable farming and agricultural business planning courses in partnership with WSU Skagit Extension and WSU’s Latino Farming Program.
Graduates of the Cultivating Success series are provided the opportunity to implement their farm business plans (developed in the Agricultural Entrepreneurship course) at the Viva Farms Incubator Farm, located at the Port of Skagit. Incubator farmers enjoy access to greenhouse space, cultivation equipment, wash/process/pack facilities, technical assistance with organic production and business development and support with marketing, sales and distribution.