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July 24, 2023

Growing success: Spartans support first-generation farmers

MSU’s bilingual agriculture program trains Latino/a farmers and farmworkers who play a vital role in Michigan’s economy

Agronomist Juan Pedro Solorio chats with a farmworker picking blueberries. Photograph by Nick Schrader.

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What started as La Siembra in 2013 — Spanish for “the sowing” — has become La Cosecha, or “the harvest.” 

The idea to provide Latino/a farmers with agricultural training and resources came to Professor David Mota-Sanchez when he was doing his postdoctoral research at Michigan State University in the Department of Entomology. Born and raised in southern Mexico, he observed that Michigan’s Latino/a farmers and farmworkers could benefit from education in pest management and pesticide use. He conducted a preliminary needs assessment and saw the challenge before him: conducting scientific programming across a language barrier for a community with historically limited access to traditional education.

“I was thinking that this was going to be extremely difficult, but then I realized that the farmers had their own words and their own systems for naming and identifying pests,” says Mota-Sanchez. “So it was about the science, but there was also this cultural part that was really important.” 

What is La Cosecha? Headed by David Mota-Sanchez and funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, La Cosecha is an MSU-led three-year educational program for beginning Latino/a farmers and ranchers offered in collaboration with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and Telamon Corporation.


Three figures with their backs to the camera walk into rows of blueberries.
Luis Alonzo Garcia (left) and David Mota-Sanchez walk alongside Leonel Campos as they visit his blueberry farm. Photograph by Henry Mochida. 

Strengthening migrant farmworker relations

That first program, which Mota-Sanchez named La Siembra, was funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture — as was its second iteration, La Cosecha, which is co-directed by Luis Alonzo Garcia, director of Migrant Student Services. Leveraging Garcia's connections, La Cosecha has built upon MSU's tradition of supporting students from migrant farmworker backgrounds in their pursuit of higher education through programs like the College Assistance Migrant Scholars Program, or CAMP. Today, the program has reached more than 200 first-generation Latino/a farmers and ranchers in Michigan through training and direct support programming, bridging barriers to technical and financial resources.

“Michigan farmers are the hardest working people I know, and our Latino/a farmers are no exception,” says Kelly Millenbah, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at MSU. “As one of the world’s great agricultural universities, MSU has supported in-state agriculture for over 160 years, and we’re proud to continue that work through this partnership with first-generation farmers.”

2020-23 La Cosecha team 

Program director: David Mota-Sanchez, MSU Department of Entomology
Program co-directors: Luis Alonzo Garcia, MSU Migrant Student Services;
Sarah Perry, Telamon Corporation; and John Wise, MSU Department of Entomology

MSU Department of Entomology: Raquel Marin, Omar Posos-Parra,
Juan Pedro Solorio 
MSU Extension: Mariel Borgman, Florencia Colella, Ana Heck,
Cheyenne Sloan, Phil Tocco, Ben Werling
MSU School of Packaging: Eva Almenar
Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development:
Antonio Castro-Escobar
Colegio de Postgraduados: Esteban Valtierra-Pacheco
Telamon Corporation: Sarah Perry, Angelica Solorio-Mendez and
Elmira Morales


“Our AgBioResearch faculty and research centers provide migrant farmers access to research-based solutions addressing a range of horticulture and pest management challenges.”

— John Wise, MSU Department of Entomology

Juan Pedro Solorio (right) and his daughter Angelica Solorio Mendez support hundreds of farmers across West Michigan. Photograph by Nick Schrader.

While there are similar programs in other states, including New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Washington and California, Michigan has the largest population of new Latino/a farmers in the North Central region. Michigan’s comparatively affordable farmland provides opportunities for up-and-coming farmers and members of immigrant communities to own property in rural areas.

“La Cosecha isn’t a program where you come in, you teach, you leave. We ask ‘What is your problem?’ and we bring the expertise to them, so they are learning something for their good,” says Mota-Sanchez. “To our farmers, MSU people are valued problem-solvers.”

Throughout the three-year program, MSU faculty and MSU Extension educators teach bilingual group workshops on the fundamentals of integrated crop management, including irrigation techniques, pest management, pollinators, packaging, crop diversification and nutrient use, as well as business and food safety practices. But the heart of La Cosecha is the one-on-one support that farmers and their families receive from culturally appropriate experts, like Juan Pedro Solorio, who was raised in Michoacán, Mexico, where he earned a degree in agronomy with specialization in plant protection. Solorio’s embedded presence directly benefits operations from designing custom irrigation systems using materials from a home improvement store to developing DIY fertilizer mixes at a fraction of the cost of commercial blends.

Yailene Morales (center) receives La Cosecha certificate of completion by Michigan and MSU agriculture leaders. Photograph by Dane Robison.

“La Cosecha really embodies MSU’s land-grant mission: subject-matter experts meeting communities where they live and delivering knowledge that they can use immediately,” says Quentin Tyler, director of MSU Extension and associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “This program meets the moment and sets a course for the future.”

While La Cosecha helps today’s farmers succeed, the program also aims to establish sustainable farms that can pass to the next generation. Yailene Morales, a 2020 MSU graduate and CAMP scholar, enrolled in La Cosecha training with her father, Sigifredo Morales-Martinez, who grows blueberries on his 30-acre farm in Grand Junction, Michigan. Raised on a dairy farm in Mexico, Morales-Martinez wants to hand down his blueberry operation to his three daughters, and making sure they are prepared to succeed in the business is critical to the family’s succession plans.

“As the university starts to peel that onion, we’re really seeing the complexity of the situation of bringing Latino/a people into agriculture,” says Garcia. “It’s not going to get easier, but this is how it begins. We are training today’s farmers and hopefully generating more interest in farming among their kids and the next generations.”

Video by Levy Randolph

Meet the farmers

Leonel Campos smiles as his daughter, Celeste, chats in the foreground.
Farming knowledge is not only passed down from generation to generation, but also advances with each one. Here, Leonel and Celeste Campos share a laugh while discussing the ins and outs of blueberry farming. Photograph by Henry Mochida.

Leonel Campos has consulted with Spartan agriculturalists since 2006 when he first started learning the trade from MSU experts. His wife’s family members were farmers in the Covert, Michigan, area, and he left his city job to grow blueberries on land that he cleared himself. In 2022, his five-acre operation employed 14 farmworkers for the season.

Agronomist Solorio has worked side-by-side with Campos, helping him to conduct tests, develop a precise soil amendment regimen, build an irrigation system and calculate ratios of nutrients that he can add directly to the water. These customized processes are remarkably efficient: Campos purchases only the chemicals he needs, endures less wear and tear on his knees and shoulders and spends less time applying fertilizers.

Solorio inspects the health of a blueberry plant that is watered and fed nutrients by an irrigation system he designed that helps balance the pH of the sandy soil. Photograph by Henry Mochida.

“Juan Pedro [Solorio] shows me how to do it better, a hundred times better than how we did it before,” Campos says, noting that while a commercial irrigation system would’ve cost him tens of thousands of dollars, this low-tech system cost mere hundreds, and he can maintain it himself.

With Solorio’s assistance, Campos is planning an eventual shift to organic farming; his home is located on site, and he doesn’t want to risk pesticide exposure. The operation is a family affair, and he proudly describes his 18-year-old daughter Celeste as an expert on every aspect of the business: the flavor and shelf life of different blueberry varieties, picking, packaging, pricing and transporting the crop without exposing it to ruinous condensation.

Most importantly, Celeste has established long-term relationships with regional buyers, and she’s not afraid to turn down those who won’t pay the market rate. “I know what we’re worth,” she says matter-of-factly. “I told them to take it or leave it.” The buyer in question left it, but Celeste was unbothered. She knew from experience that others would be willing to meet her terms.

“No check, no berries,” she says.

Pedro Bautista stands with hands on hips looking onward while framed by out of focus blueberry plants in the foreground.
Pedro Bautista's calmness and composure allow him to think quickly on his feet. When asked, he will promptly provide calculated projections or precise schedules for various agricultural operations. Photograph by Nick Schrader.

Pedro Bautista fell in love with the lush farmland of West Michigan, where he grows blueberries and chestnuts on his rolling 60-acre property.

“I grew up farming in Mexico. I think that’s where I got that in me,” says Bautista, who spent his early years growing pinto beans and corn with his family. As an adult, he worked factory jobs in the midwestern U.S., even after his wife and children moved to the farm in 2003. He became a full-time farmer 13 years ago.

Bautista had never attended school in Mexico or the U.S. but became the very first MSU graduate in his family — graduating from MSU’s High School Equivalency Program through Migrant Student Services, which provides bilingual General Educational Degree, or GED, test preparation to agricultural workers in Michigan. Bautista lived on campus in East Lansing for three months and earned his GED, and while he had no history of formal education, he brought the practical intelligence of his life experiences into the classroom. Today, two of his five children are also proud Spartans, and they return to the farm to help during harvest season.

The picturesque Bautista farm with its chestnut grove served as the first place farmers gathered during the early stages of the program in 2009. Photograph by Henry Mochida.

“In this family, everyone works,” says Bautista.

Bautista found his way into La Cosecha through Solorio and has hosted numerous community training sessions on his farm. He hopes that their recent advances in pruning, spraying and fertilizing methods will lead to increased production — they brought in 290,000 pounds of blueberries in 2022, and he’s aiming for 400,000 pounds in 2023. As a member of the Michigan Blueberry Growers Association, his berries end up on the shelves in Costco, Walmart and Meijer, as well as in farmers markets across the state.

It’s demanding work, but for Bautista, it’s worth it. When asked if he likes blueberries, he is quick to reply. “I love blueberries — growing them, eating them, everything.”

Nahun smiles in the center foreground in front of rows of vegetable crops.
Nahun Avalos proudly dons a Harvard hat, where his daughter was recently accepted, as he shares stories of crop breakthroughs. Photograph by Henry Mochida.

Nahun Avalos spent 28 years in supervision at a Chicago waste management company. Though he didn’t have a family background in farming, the Mexican-born father of three was ready for a change.

“I was just tired all the time and I didn’t enjoy my life,” he says. “I came out here and my eyes were opened. I could see there was a lot of opportunity and a lot of money here.”

Family photos cover a wall in the new home that Avalos built on his farmland. Photograph by Henry Mochida.

A natural entrepreneur, Avalos bought land in Van Buren County and started out as a weekend blueberry farmer 16 years ago. It was, he admits, a rocky start, and in the early years, he struggled with fruit quality. But his persistence has paid off: in the summer of 2022, he filled a semitruck to capacity with his berries for the first time, packing around 30,000 pounds of fruit into the truck to sell directly to buyers in the nearby Chicago market. He farms full time now, and at his buyers’ request, he’s expanding into growing pickling cucumbers, tomatoes and jalapeños — and he’s conducting a test run on squash this year (a success so far, even in a notably dry summer).

Avalos had been trying for 10 years to grow pickling cucumbers but didn’t succeed until Solorio got involved. “I’d buy the seeds, I’d plant them, I’d water them, and I thought I’d have pickles. But it doesn’t work like that,” Avalos explained. Solorio worked alongside Avalos on soil remediation, pest management and irrigation. He even decided to grow the crop vertically rather than on the ground for a more efficient harvest.

“I was looking for this information. I had zero, zero experience,” says Avalos. “Juan Pedro [Solorio] has the experience and he knows the things I don’t know . . . but he’s teaching me, and I’m learning.”

Close-up of picked blueberries in hands.
Blueberries ripen over time, requiring each row of plants to be hand-picked several times through a season. Photograph by Nick Schrader.

What’s next for La Cosecha

After their recent successes, including hosting a first-of-its-kind gathering in April for 200 Latino/a farmers on MSU’s campus, Mota-Sanchez and Garcia are considering what comes next for La Cosecha. They recently submitted a third grant proposal to continue and expand the program, and it’s in the peer-review stage.

On April 2, many Latino/a farmers were recognized for successfully completing La Cosecha. Photograph by Dane Robison.

In whatever ways the program evolves, Mota-Sanchez, Garcia and their MSU colleagues won’t deviate from their successful approach: working side by side as mutual partners to expand Michigan’s cohort of farmers — and economic prosperity for the state.

“In the future, we want to help farmers market their crops. I want to expand into climate-smart agriculture — that’s going to be important,” says Mota-Sanchez. “And we want to have a few drones.”

Leer este artículo en español

By: Kelly Kussmaul and Kelsie Lane

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