30 Days: Martha Calderon and Esmeralda Sandoval

Martha Calderon (right) with her daughter on their farm in Vale, NC.

Martha Calderon and Esmeralda Sandoval are new advisors to our crop insurance work. The two farmers both began working in the fields as seasonal farmworkers. They eventually worked up to managing contract labor for farmers while still in the fields. It was hard work in a fragile system – they knew it could all go away very fast.

Now, the sisters-in-law work for themselves in western North Carolina alongside their husbands and children on their own land. They also co-founded the Hispanic Women in Agriculture Cooperative so that Latina farmers in their region can work collectively to grow their businesses and increase their opportunities as farmers and landowners.

On a recent spring morning in Vale, North Carolina, Martha sat at her kitchen table over a massive three-ring binder neatly packed with documents and forms. Her fingers flipped through the pages, their edges meticulously labeled. Martha knew where to find every document she needed in that binder, in her computer files and in a backup folder in her filing cabinet.

Martha and her husband are mid-scale farmers, growing tomatoes and peppers in Vale for almost ten years. They are building a livelihood based on hard work and following the rules, keeping track of tedious documentation and applications, all the while working the land.

But so far, federal crop insurance and risk management tools have not worked in their favor.

“I spent a week without seeing the light of day,” Martha said of doing all the paperwork, “working on this so they can have all the files perfect and in order. You have the proof, and you sit there baffled. You have the loss, you show the loss, but you don’t get anything in return. One of the steps of risk management is that you’re supposed to put the risk on someone else. How can you put the risk on someone else and they don’t deliver?”

We traveled with both Martha and Esmeralda this year month to Kansas City to meet with USDA officials. Along with farmers from New Hampshire, Iowa and Kansas, they were able to bring the results of their experience with crop insurance directly to the people who could do something about it.

“I was a farmworker for 16 years, from the time I was very young,” Martha said at the meeting. “Now I am able to stay in one place, raise my children, and work for myself. My life is much better. But with the current system in place, it is still very fragile. I don’t want to go back to having to be a farmworker. If we don’t have good insurance for our vegetables, then that could be what happens.”

We thank Martha and Esmeralda for raising their voices for themselves and farmers like them. They are truly empowered women making a difference, taking their concerns directly to the policy makers and demanding a fair chance.

To nominate your favorite farmer or food hero for RAFI’s 30 Days of Thanks, click here.

Follow along every day at rafiusa.org/30daysofthanks

ANNOUNCEMENT: 2024 Beginning Farmer Stipends are Here! APPLY NOW!