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Here in California, the Salinas Valley is often called America's salad bowl. Large growers there have long relied on thousands of seasonal workers from rural Mexico to pick lettuce, spinach and celery from sunrise to sunset. Many of those workers seem destined for a life in the fields.

Now, a program that helps field workers start their own farms and businesses is starting to yield a few success stories. NPR's Kirk Siegler paid a visit, and has this story.


KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Raul Murillo ducks out of the wind and into the cool shade of a greenhouse, a few steps away from his 3-acre strawberry farm.

RAUL MURILLO: (Spanish spoken)

SIEGLER: His small plot is leased from a cooperative called ALBA Organics, which runs a small training program that helps longtime field workers in this valley start their own farms. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: ALBA Organics is a nonprofit, not a cooperative.] ALBA also helps with things like fertilizer and irrigation tools. Murillo can sell his berries back to ALBA's cooperative, which does a brisk business with grocery stores in the nearby Bay Area.

MURILLO: (Spanish spoken)

SIEGLER: If God permits, he says, he'll continue turning a modest profit so he can hire more people who need the work. Under ALBA's rules, Murillo can only lease this land at a subsidized rate for a few years and after that, he's on his own. But it's a risk he's willing to take, even though he'd leave behind the steady paycheck he gets still working for big growers.

MURILLO: (Spanish spoken)

SIEGLER: It's about being your own boss, he says, instead of working for a foreman. And at 45, Murillo wants to try going out on his own before he gets too old. His story is not unlike many of the 50 or so other farmers-in-training here at ALBA. Many have spent their entire lives in the fields, moving from one harvest to the next, from California, down to Mexico, then back up.

NATHAN HARKLEROAD: So it gives them a chance to take a bit of control of their lives, and not have to work for somebody else.

SIEGLER: Nathan Harkleroad is in charge of ALBA's training programs, which are run out of this airy, converted farm house.

HARKLEROAD: You know, is everyone going to make it? Probably not.

SIEGLER: Probably not, because there are a lot of barriers. Language, high price of land, to name just two. Still, since 2002, 90 ALBA graduates have managed to break through and start their own farms off-site. And they're doing well today. Harkleroad attributes some of that to growing demand for local produce, but it's also due to a lot of hard work.

HARKLEROAD: You know, our farmers are here six days a week, and on their seventh day they're probably worrying about their crops here. So you have to be willing to accept that. You have to be willing to accept a certain level of risk too; farming is inherently a risky business.

GAIL WADSWORTH: And the reward economically isn't that great.

SIEGLER: Gail Wadsworth heads the California Institute of Rural Studies, which advocates for farm worker rights.

WADSWORTH: I don't think that there are that many farmers that you can look at and say, wow, you know, they've really made it.

SIEGLER: She says ALBA's mission of empowerment, and teaching business skills to long-marginalized farm workers, is good. But she's not sure encouraging them to launch into farming on their own is a good idea.

WADSWORTH: Agricultural work is physically very demanding; it's one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S. But you're not risking everything that you own. You don't have the risk of owning land or a business.

SIEGLER: That's why 23-year-old aspiring farmer Octavio Garcia has a backup plan. He's almost finished with the ALBA program and he's been able to hire three employees and is now looking for land to lease elsewhere in this valley.

OCTAVIO GARCIA: I want to be my own boss. And when I came from Mexico, I came with the idea of doing something better.

SIEGLER: But if Garcia can't find suitable land to lease soon, he'll head to school. He's just been accepted into a plant science program at Fresno State. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

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