By Dave Straub, Cordata Produce Department
originally published July 2019; updated July 2020
Meet the co-founders and worker-owners of Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad: Modesto Hernandez Leal (left) and Ramón Barba Torres (right).
In June 2019, they graciously welcomed a few Co-op staff for a tour of their 65-acre cooperatively owned farm in Everson, Washington.
Photos by Matt Curtis.
For some, the Mexican Revolution never ended, but is still fought by peaceful farmworkers with berries instead of guns. Meet Modesto Hernandez Leal and Ramón Barba Torres, co-founders and worker-owners of Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad. Through their struggle for farmworker equity, the values of the rebellion endure.
The Cooperativa’s logo depicts Emiliano Zapata with his gun edited out and replaced with a basket of berries.
Zapata famously said, “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.” A phrase that has continued to inspire the dispossessed over the last 100 years, including Ramón and Modesto.
local farmworkers are proud to provide ethically produced berries from their farmworker-owned cooperative
The idea for Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad emerged during the struggle, and eventual success, to form the first farmworker-led union in Washington. Over many hours, weeks, and months of meetings, the farmworkers discussed how it would be to work without bosses or supervisors. Two years later, local farmworkers are proud to provide ethically produced berries from their farmworker-owned cooperative.
On tour at Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad in Everson, Washington. (from left) Modesto Hernandez Leal, Ramón Barba Torres, Maureen Darras (our wonderful Spanish/English translator), and Co-op staff Dave Straub and Laura Steiger. Behind the camera is photographer Matt Curtis.
I visited Cooperativa’s 65 acres this spring. Rows of fledgling blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries stretched into the distance under a vista of Mount Baker.
Ramón is 30-something, relaxed, and slightly skeptical in a way reminiscent of Zapata portraits. Modesto smiles constantly and moves with a youthful energy despite an old injury from working in dangerous conditions. Both are proud to be farmworkers.
“They stuck well to the Earth and they are beautiful,” Ramón said of their recently transplanted blueberries.
Modesto (at left) cupped his hands under a heavy cluster of blossoms to demonstrate hand harvesting.
The most skilled pickers see through the foliage and rapidly thumb only the ripest berries into their palms careful not to disturb the silvery coat of bloom dust that keeps the berries fresh.
During my tour they continued to work, pruning old growth and tearing up fistfuls of weeds while describing their dreams for the Cooperativa.
“Families shouldn’t have to struggle for land,” Ramón said.
Ramón gestured to vacant sections of land to grow corn for a future tortilla co-op, to plant an orchard, and to grow vegetables.
They envision 10 families who cooperatively grow and sell their own food. “Families shouldn’t have to struggle for land,” Ramón said.
We are doing this for families, so they can eat the fruits of their labor while also having opportunity, education, and the chance to become professionals if they want
Often farm work is endured by workers who hope better for their children, but Ramón, a father of two, doesn’t see farming and education as mutually exclusive. “We are doing this for families, so they can eat the fruits of their labor while also having opportunity, education, and the chance to become professionals if they want.”
But each idyllic vision came with the caveat, “we need more money.”
Plants damaged by the harsh winter need pruning and raspberries lay untrellised because they can’t afford to pay workers.
Instead, the founders contribute sweat equity and plan to pay themselves wages when the Cooperativa becomes profitable. But that could take years.
I asked how they survived in the meantime. “Thanks to God,” Modesto said. “Farmworkers suffer to bring berries to market. To work on this project for a better future is a gift from God, but first we must pay rent.”
A sobering reminder that to peacefully change an exploitative system requires resources and the support of a community.
At the Community Food Co-op, portraits of our hardworking local farmers hang proudly above the produce department. These farmers carved a life for themselves outside big agro-business. They are also white and followed a path of relative privilege with access to education, mentors, land, equipment, and, most importantly, money.
creating an opportunity for cooperation between our two communities, separated by language and economic barriers, but who share the same values of healthy food access and farmworker equity
Meanwhile, the faces of undocumented farmworkers and H2A guest-workers, who grow the vast majority of our food, are absent. Well, here they are, creating an opportunity for cooperation between our two communities, separated by language and economic barriers, but who share the same values of healthy food access and farmworker equity.
Ramón and Modesto are hardworking, skilled, and their dreams of a better life for farmworkers deserves our support.
Donate—Make checks payable to Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad and send to: TIERRA Y LIBERTAD, PO Box 963, Bellingham WA 98227
Donations go toward new equipment and lease-to-own payments.