Program cultivates eager farmers

LAS LOMAS -- Jose Nunez raked a hand cultivator between rows of beets under the warm sun Thursday morning.

For years after the Watsonville resident immigrated from Ixtapan, Mexico, he worked for local vegetable and flower growers. Now, he's working for himself, thanks to the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, a Salinas-based program that supports aspiring farmers.

In addition to beets, Nunez grows squash, tomatoes, peppers, celery, cilantro and marigolds on 2 acres leased at the training association's 195-acre Triple M Ranch above Hall Road.

"Now that I do it on my own, it's better quality," said Nunez, his pride evident as he spread his arms to encompass the long rows of vegetables and marigolds thick with orange blooms.

ALBA, founded in 2001 after operating for 15 years as the Rural Development Center in Salinas, promotes entrepreneurship, organic agriculture and consumption, and conservation.

Nancy Bustos Porto, ALBA development and communications associate, said participants in its farmer education program spend six months in the classroom and in the field, learning about organic farming, business planning and marketing. There are also classes in computers and English.