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On one Carolina acre, an immigrant-run farming coop shows possible path to better life

Tierra Fertil, a one-acre stretch in Hendersonville, NC
Posted at 8:42 AM, Sep 13, 2021

HENDERSONVILLE, N.C. — To run a farm is to peer afar. It is to plant seeds and wait months, to cultivate the land for growth and a legacy for generations. It is to dream for miles, even if you only run an acre.

On a small plot in Hendersonville, N.C., Delia Jovel and fellow immigrants from El Salvador and Mexico pick strawberries and pack corn. It’s their food to keep and sell, on a space they call Tierra Fertil – or, in English, fertile land.

“We had no water no experience, and no equipment,” Jovel said. “It was a big risk, but we are a little bit passionate. We are not a little bit. We are really passionate about this.”

She represents a potential path to ownership for a community often removed from it, at least in terms of agriculture.

Among farmworkers in the United States, the Hispanic community makes up 77%. Among farm owners, they make up 3%.

“Trust is so important,” Jovel said. “To feel comfortable in a country that is not yours.”

Ed Graves runs a farm in Hendersonville called the Tiny Bridge Farm with his partner, K.P. Whaley.

“In many senses,” he said. “The [Hispanic] community here is invisible. If you are an immigrant in this country, you do not have the money or access to people with resources to buy a bunch of land.”

A Senate study found the fastest Hispanic growth in rural areas. Since 2010, the Hispanic community in North Carolina has grown 27%; in neighboring Tennessee, it’s 34%. It’s grown fastest by the Canadian border: 50% in Montana, 66% in South Dakota, and 129% in North Dakota. But ownership, especially on farms, remains elusive.

“You don’t have to time to say, ‘I’m gonna try something different,’” Jovel said. “You are not able. The reason you are here is because you need a stable income. You just need a job.”

Last year, Jovel began Tierra Fertil. She recruited a small group to grow foods for their community. They sell some at farmers markets and distribute much of it to Hispanic food banks.

As for their acre, it was offered by Graves and Whaley. No rent, no strings, no limits.

“You know, KP and I are gay farmers,” Graves said. “We’re also marginalized in this community, so we kind of reached out because we want to band together. There’s this sense, for people that don’t have a lot of resources in this society, is that land is power. And our shared project is about building community power.”

It is one acre on shared land. It does not erase the many hurdles of immigrant existence. In the morning, Jovel and her team will head to their day jobs, as they always have. The farm doesn’t provide nearly enough for an independent income.

But they still show up every day, often with their children, who get to play while the grown-ups work.

One acre is the first brick on a path of hope.

“It’s not how much you farm,” Jovel said. “It’s why you farm. For us, one acre for five people who spend maybe 10-12 hours by week is enough. It’s enough.”