South Bay Worker Cooperative Looks To Chart The Future Of Urban Farming
On a Tuesday afternoon, the Pixca farmstand is open for business. Customers come by in cars, on bikes, or riding horses to buy fresh tomatoes, gourds, peppers, and flowers. The farm stand is one of the few places where people can buy fresh fruit and veggies directly from a farmer in the South Bay.
While Pixca aims to increase community access to healthy foods, it’s also trying something equally ambitious — a business model that could point a way forward for urban agriculture.
While smaller farms are typically owned by families, who often manage their workers, Pixca Farms is different. It’s the workers themselves who own it.
“Everyone’s a leader here, or typically, that’s how worker co-ops typically are,” said Jose Alacaraz, one of the owners and workers of Pixca. “We all have a decision on our production, we all have immediate control, we decide what to do as a collective and how to proceed as a business.”
Alcaraz grew up in San Ysidro. He has a degree in environmental engineering but decided to become a farmer and part-owner of a farm, after he found out about Pixca two years ago.
“I found this place and just never left, I’m still here,” he says, smiling broadly.
Around a mile from the border, the ocean, and the desert, Pixca sits in the Tijuana River Valley. The year-round growing season means farmers can pack in a lot of produce inside its small footprint, and experiment with what will flourish and what won’t.
“We’re growing a mix of cut flowers and vegetables, so I would say probably 50/50,” Leonard Vargas told KPBS as he leads us on a tour of the farm.
Vargas is a third-generation farmer in southern California and started the farm in 2017 with the idea of making fresher food available to communities that lack access to it.
“Really one of the things that we wanted to do is start to provide vegetables to some of those communities that are in food deserts, this gives us a close proximity to that, particularly in the South Bay, seems to be struggling with that,” Vargas said.
And the COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified the need for healthy and affordable food for these communities.
“A lot of the communities here are struggling with diabetes and high blood pressure, and some of those other diseases from eating poorly, so fresh food will help with that and make our community stronger because people will be more healthy, and will diversify our diets,” Vargas said.
Shortly after Vargas began leasing the land from the county, he was joined by Christina Juarez, who’s from Tijuana. The farm, like the surrounding area, is bilingual.
Together, they realized that a workers’ cooperative was the best way forward for the farm.
“I believe you can do work with more heart. When you feel equal to the other person. When you don't expect orders from them, when you feel they won't scold you because something is different. And so, you're putting your heart and your soul and your knowledge into something,” Juarez said in Spanish.
She figured that if they were going to be working long and hard hours, for little pay, they might as well be doing it for themselves and their community.
She explained that the name Pixca comes from the Nahuas inidigenous people, and is a play on the colloquial “Pisca,” which refers to the harvest and is popularly used among Mexican-American farmworkers.
But the work hasn’t been easy. With four worker/owners, they’re just beginning to pay themselves minimum wage. And nature hasn’t exactly been cooperating. When the Tijuana River Valley floods, all the produce it touches has to be thrown out.
“We had a little flood that came through here in December of last year, and took out all our vegetable crops, so we took them out and started all over again,” Vargas explained.
He said that Pixca had to get creative.
“At that point we decided to add cut flowers to our mix, so that we could be more sustainable, because we are in the floodplain, and we found that people really liked them,” he said.
They now sell their flowers at the farm stand and at shops like Gem Coffee in City Heights and it’s helping them diversify their business.
“I thought we were going to have to look for new jobs,” Alcaraz said, looking back on the flood. Both Alcaraz and Juarez are taking business classes to help them manage the farm they now both own.
The newest worker/owner, Erik Rodriguez, also grew up in south San Diego. He was furloughed from his longtime job at the beginning of the pandemic and started helping with Pixca during his free time, after he finished his work in his own farm plot nearby. Like Jose, he soon couldn’t bring himself to leave.
For him, connecting the community to agriculture is a huge part of what Pixca does. They sell and give away saplings for people to plant in their home gardens.
“There was a child that came and bought a pepper plant, and then he came back every week, showing me the progress of his pepper plant, and then finally he harvested the pepper plant and ate it. I was just like, so into it that he was into it. I just felt super powerful,” Rodriguez said. “It was super intense, the feeling of joy.”
Pixca, whose farmstand is open Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday afternoons in the South Bay, is hoping to kick off a local urban farming movement following the worker cooperative model, especially among people of color.
“We’re an example to other POC that they can be part of a business and an industry, because whether we like it or not, we’re still part of the system, but in our own way,” Alcaraz said. “ With our ownership. It feels really good. I feel a lot more people, a lot more farmers, should definitely feel that.”