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Farmers and agricultural producers from across California offer advice during a panel session held Thursday in Santa Maria as part of the fourth Latino Farmer conference. From left are Javier Zamora, Jacob Huerta, Stacy Huerta-Alcorn, Jorge Inestroza and Sergio Medrano.

More than 200 Latino farmers, ranchers and agricultural producers from across California and the West gathered at the Radisson Hotel in Santa Maria on Thursday for "Growing Together," the fourth conference for Latino ranchers, farmers and agricultural producers in the western U.S.

Conference organizer Christine Chavez, who works as an outreach coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, said the agency concocted the idea for the conference in 2015. Co-sponsored by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and National Center for Appropriate Technology, the daylong event was designed to link Latino agricultural producers with resources available at the local, state and federal levels.

"We're not having Latino farmers come into our offices at the same rates like other farmers do," she said. "There isn't an an association that represents them; they're just sort of out there."

Recently re-elected Congressman Salud Carbajal, who opened the conference and introduced its keynote speakers, remembered picking strawberries, tomatoes and cucumbers with his father over summers in Oxnard. He called the rise and success of Latino farmers across the U.S. an example of the American dream.

"To see immigrants in this country going from working and toiling in the fields to ... establishing their own successful businesses, is a testament to the immigrant heritage we have in our country," he said. "They're demonstrating their hard work, grit and desire to take their place and contribute to this country."

Cal Poly graduate and San Luis Obispo County resident Stacy Huerta-Alcorn — one of the state's 15,123 farmers of Spanish, Hispanic or Latino descent — said she convinced her father, second-generation farmer Jacob Huerta, to attend the conference after the positive experience she had in Monterey.

"I grew up around it my whole life; it's in my blood," said Huerta-Alcorn, a third-generation farmer who operates a 19-acre pomegranate farm in Tulare County. "Both my grandparents were in agriculture, and my dad farms, so I farm. To me, it's really important."

Farming on a part-time basis for most of his life, Huerta, who like his daughter grows pomegranates on an 11.5-acre farm in Tulare, said he made the shift to farming full-time after retiring from a lengthy career in law enforcement. "Ever since I was a kid I used to tend a little garden," he recalled, describing small garden plots of tomatoes, squash and chili peppers. 

"It's going to be rough at the beginning," Huerta said, offering advice to new farmers. "If that's what you want to do, expect to work long hours as well. I see big growers whose tractors break down, but they still continue doing it."

Seated together at a table near the back of the room, a group of five Santa Maria High School FFA members and their adviser, Luis Guerra, listened to a panel of farmers offer advice about how to face the challenges and opportunities that arise in their day-to-day operations. Guerra, a longtime agricultural instructor at the school, said the conference showed students the opportunities that exist beyond fieldwork.

"One of the biggest things [about opportunities like this] is it opens up their eyes to what they can do," he said. "Many of the students have seen their parents work on the labor side, or they themselves have been out there and experienced field labor, so we want show to them the other opportunities that they might enjoy."

Sophomore Rebekah Blackmon called the conference and her experience in FFA an "eye-opener," saying both helped her rethink the concept of what a farmer is. Junior Ivan Carranza agreed.

"When people hear about agriculture, they tend to think of only one thing: the fields," he said. "There are actually so many branches of agriculture you can take."

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Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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