Luciano Alvarado introduces himself and discusses some of the difficulties his family has faced in establishing their operation outside of Fayetteville.
Hunched over long rows of bushes, the scorching North Carolina sun on his back, Luciano Alvarado spends the hot days of mid-May harvesting his forty acres of blueberries. Nearby, he tends 110 acres of cucumbers, and will later sow zucchini, okra, green beans, and three varieties of sweet potatoes. As both owner and operator of Palomo Farms just outside Fayetteville, NC, Luciano is a living example of the adage “hard work always pays.” After facing tremendous difficulties in obtaining farm credit, being denied loans by the Farm Service Agency for six years, and almost losing his farm, Luciano has created a livelihood for himself on his blueberry farm.
Luciano Alvarado, the son of Mexican farm workers, immigrated to the United States twenty-five years ago as a young child. Settling in Florida, the Alvarados worked in citrus production until 2003 when they relocated to North Carolina. On their own land, the Alvarados established Palomo Farms and tried their hand at blueberry farming. “At first blueberry farming was more of a side project than a livelihood,” Luciano remembers. “The farm was in bad shape at the time. Grass was growing in the blueberry rows, the land was not level, and we did not have an irrigation system. The farm was not being used to its potential. We only had twenty acres in production.”
Not only was Palomo Farms suffering, but the Alvarados were also struggling to make ends meet. The family saw great potential in Palomo Farms, but in its limited scale, it was not bringing in the cash flow necessary to expand production. Luciano knew, like most family farmers facing this financial conundrum, that they would need a loan to grow their farm business and to foster their livelihood.
In 2003, Luciano and his father paid a visit to the Farm Service Agency (FSA) near Fayetteville. “We had never met with an FSA loan officer. We were clueless, but we were making plans. We made a commitment to the farm and needed $80,000 to get off the ground.”
The loan officer agreed to help the Alvarados get the money they needed to expand production and revitalize their farm. The officer paid a visit to Palomo Farms to assist Luciano in filling out the application, and promised a response in ten days. The Alvarados never heard from him again.
The Alvarados made a second attempt for an FSA loan. They were told that their original application and phone number was lost, and that the loan cycle was finished for this year, but were encouraged to reapply. “The officer told us that if we applied again for the next year, we would be guaranteed a loan. We were very naïve.”
“I basically felt blindfolded,” says Luciano. “I spent a lot of time in the library learning the ins and outs of farm loan programs while trying to keep the farm going. I was supposed to be the strongest member of the family, but sometimes when I was alone I would break down. But I had to pull myself together and keep going.”
Still without a loan to maintain their farm, the Alvarados began networking and meeting with other farmers in similar financial situations. In 2005, Luciano and his father were sent to a farming conference in Mexico by New Immigrant Farmer International, an organization founded by Heifer International that assists immigrants with their transition into American agriculture by finding grants, financing, and technical assistance.
Representatives from the USDA who were at the conference recognized Luciano for his resiliency and dedication to Palomo Farm. “You boys have got something extraordinary’ they told us,” says Luciano. “We felt more confident when we returned to North Carolina and we expanded our farm, putting almost 40 acres into production.”
Luciano continued to educate himself on farm financing, business practices, and the farm bill. He was determined to keep growing, and applied for yet another FSA loan. This time the officer questioned their ability to repay the loan and probed about any illegal activities the Alvarados might be involved in, calling for more paperwork. Luciano defended himself, filled out the application, and again they were promised a loan for which they were eventually denied. “It was so sad,” Luciano says. “We just couldn’t see the light anymore.”
Through a contact at The Rural Coalition, Luciano was put in touch with Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA) (both Farm Aid-funded groups) and was referred to Benny Bunting, a long-time farm advocate. A meeting was arranged, and over hot dogs, Benny and Luciano brainstormed on how to save Palomo Farms.
Benny assisted Luciano with the long appeal process. After six long years, the Alvarados finally received an FSA loan; but, instead of the $120,000 loan they asked for, they were given just $75,000 – barely enough to make mortgage payments and replant blueberry bushes lost in that year’s frost.
With some bills paid off, and blueberry production expanded, Luciano is now making a living thanks to his hard work and determination. “I talk to others about not giving up. I still manage to have my farm. I can’t advance as fast as I want to, but I believe that things don’t just happen. I believe things happen for a purpose.”
Luciano was recently sponsored by Farm Aid to participate in the Drake Forum on America’s New Farmers held this past March in Washington, DC. Accompanied by Joel Morton, Farm Aid’s Farm Advocate, Luciano met with FSA representatives and his congressman’s office to discuss his struggles in acquiring farm credit.
“We ran into some obstacles with the FSA farm credit loan officers to a point that it has been not just a challenge, but a battle trying to expand business to create a future for my children and also to encourage them to keep farming.”
Luciano uses the lessons he learns from his own experiences to assist fellow farmers who face similar credit issues, aiding them through the loan process and providing them with personal insight. Luciano has been recognized as a keynote speaker at a conference for small, minority, refugee and immigrant farmers, and with numerous community awards.
Luciano is determined to see Palomo Farms thrive. He continues to work hard each day to better himself and his farm. “I realize nothing is impossible. You just have to really grab it, shoot for the stars, and do something to make your dreams come true.”