Ninety percent of all fresh US strawberries are grown right here in California. The temperate, Mediterranean climate of the Central Coast allows the crop to flourish, resulting in a $3.2 billion industry. Recent graduates of California FarmLink’s Resilerator ®, Miriam and Donna Olivera, owners of Hijas de la Fresa (Daughters of the Strawberry), know this as well as anyone. Donna explains the name as a way to uphold a family legacy: “My sister and I grew up with parents that invested a lot of their time in the strawberry business…we are our parents' daughters, but also daughters of this business.”
“We are products of strawberries, and we are marked by their history and their future,” Miriam adds.
They started their business in 2021, after their father passed away from COVID-19. Their parents had farmed for over 30 years. Initially migrating with the crops around the state, and after experimenting with zucchini and tomatoes, they settled on growing strawberries near Santa Maria. They describe themselves as once being “adjacent to the farm business,” watching their parents develop farming practices and helping out on the weekends.
“Our dad was such a big person in our lives. And honoring that, the fact that our business was born out of that tragedy, and that heartache, trying to honor that as well,” Donna says. The decision to start their own business was made within the same week, while mourning their father and the larger loss to their community. “One of the first things I said to our workforce was: ‘You saw my dad more than I did. You spent more time with my dad than I did.’ The folks who stuck with us, who could have gone elsewhere…they've become so integral to our community.”
The word legacy lingers in the background of our hour and a half long interview: their family legacy, leading back to Oaxaca, Mexico, their legacy within the Santa Maria community, their commitment to the environment and the overall legacy of minority women farmers creating successful family businesses.
Farming, by nature, is a community-wide enterprise and their community is a source of pride for the Oliveras. Family members, neighbors, and even vendors offer support, give advice and continue to step up in unexpected ways. Miriam describes a “new community,” defined by folks who have put everything on the line–who are not only responsible for their own livelihoods, but also those of their families.
“We've been very fortunate,” Donna says. “Our [family] has built a lot of relationships…aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors. Their help has been so invaluable. They've lent us their equipment, they have done certain jobs for us that we were not able to do, and they have stepped up in a way that we did not expect.”
“We are really a part of a larger legacy of California history,” Miriam remarks. “We are also part of the growing trend of younger women coming into farming. And when we are taken seriously, it's in earnest and people speak admirably of women who've shown that they can rise above.”
Prior to Hijas de la Fresa, Donna was engaged in labor activism in college and Miriam studied soil science. Their backgrounds combine to draw upon a wealth of knowledge to inform their business practices. While Donna is out in the fields from five in the morning to eight in the evening, Miriam oversees the critical day-to-day details: finances, urgent judgment calls, environmental practices, and much more.
“One of my goals for the Resilerator program was actually to be able to better understand what Miriam does,” Donna explains. “That curiosity was also from seeing my sister having that burden of knowledge of our loans and debt. One of my goals was just knowing what our financial situation is. The course really just allowed me to put on that business hat.”
“We were invited to attend a virtual Latino farmers conference and someone mentioned FarmLink and potential programs,” Miriam expands. “Years prior, one of the reasons why I didn't get more involved with my parents' business is because it seemed so overwhelming. I felt that having some guidance would really help us break down what it is that we're doing.”
Looking forward to sharpening their financial and organizational skills, the sisters also enhanced their understanding of the fine lines of contracts, cash flow projections, and relevant policies and regulations – all while focusing on goal-setting and overcoming challenges. The Resilerator’s close-knit cohort structure is furthered by incorporating classes taught by fellow farmers and contractors. The course is designed to encourage community and solidarity across generations of farmers and promote a knowledge bank that attendees can draw from long afterward - among themselves, with personalized assistance from FarmLink staff, and through additional courses.
“Some of the farmers we met were smaller or larger and they were able to do certain things like growing multiple crops. Understanding how challenging that is, and getting to see the other side of certain things without having to experience it ourselves, and whether or not it's something that we want to do for ourselves, is also part of it,” says Miriam. “It's getting a fuller picture of what farming is about, not just today, but also the long term.”
When asked about the long-term, Donna is direct, “I want access to land. 20 acres, that's all I'm asking for,” she laughs. “The course, I think, established certain things for me. We don't want to put ourselves in a position that compromises our value in terms of labor, or environmentally. Land is so valuable.”
Sherlin Benjamin is an Environmental Policy and Management Master’s Candidate specializing in Sustainability Management at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey.