Juan Raygoza earned his M.S. degree in Soil Science from Texas A&M-Kingsville. In addition to farming in Edinburg, he works for the University of Texas-Pan American. In 2013 he was awarded a Young Farmer Grant from the Texas Department of Agriculture. He also spoke at the annual meeting of USDA’s Beginning Farmer & Rancher Development Program, where he addressed over 100 educators and farming advocates from all parts of the country.
Why did you decide to farm organically if your own background was in conventional agriculture?
Juan: “Well, I started working for an ornamental greenhouse operation and then I worked for a corn seed production operation. When I was working in those companies, I got to see the large amounts of chemicals that are used to produce and switched my mind to grow without the use of chemicals. Especially for my kids, I didn’t want to grow something that had chemicals.”
Did you ever have an experience at one of those operations where you got chemicals on yourself that made you think about what you were doing?
Juan: “Well, yeah, one time, at the commercial greenhouse, it wasn’t pesticides, but it was fertilizers. We had to irrigate the plants, everything was automated. I remember there was a line I had to switch. It was cold, during winter. There was still pressure in the line, and I got all soaked with the water and fertilizer mix.
“The good thing was that I lived close by, and I was able to go home and rinse off quickly, but still it didn’t feel good, because I was completely soaked in that solution, which was very concentrated. While working in the corn operation I had to walk inside the fields that were previously sprayed with a plane or a tractor so I did not enjoy doing that at all and I would always keep my work clothes away from my kids when I came back home.”
What do you find to be the biggest differences between conventional and organic agriculture, now that you’ve been farming for the last couple of years?
Juan: “One of the main ones with the controls on organics is that it’s a big challenge but the benefits are there. In organic, we see more conservation of the soil, and we work more with organic matter addition. You know it feels good, it feels good to not work with chemicals, either on the plants or on the soil and to improve soil fertility.”
If you knew then what you know now, what would you have done differently over the last two or three years?
Juan: “Many doors have opened for us in the last few years, sometimes I feel its an open path that I need to follow and is telling me I need to keep learning and growing good food. It’s been a long project, a long process. When I started thinking about doing organic farming it was back in 2007. So I started borrowing a piece of land here, a piece of land there, and buying a tool, buying anything—just because I had my mind set on the future. I was sure at one point I was going to be able to have my little farm. So it’s been a long process but I can’t think of something I would change, everything has been part of this learning process.”
Who certifies this farm?
Juan: “This farm is in the process. The farm didn’t have any chemicals for about four or five years because nobody was farming it. Right now, we have not applied for certification. But we are planning to do this and we are already working on the application forms to take advantage of the Cost Share Program.”
Juan: “Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA).”
What do you think TDA could be doing to help the organics industry here in Texas?
Juan: “I think TDA really needs to train their inspectors so that they get very familiar with the purpose of organic farming. And they should have inspectors who really understand and really believe in organic agriculture. I think that would be helpful.”
Is there anything else you would like to say for this newsletter profile?
Juan: “I would say that a person has to believe in it. I didn’t realize it, but I was talking to my wife the other day and we started out with nothing. We came here to the valley, and we were renting an apartment. And now, we have this little piece of property where any input we use is for the benefit of the farm. We believe in organic, and we have been working at it hard, and it hasn’t been easy. You know, it’s a lot of work, but if you like it, you enjoy it and you believe in it, I’m sure there’s going to be some doors opening here and there.
Do you have to spend some time marketing to create some local demand for your product?
Juan: “Yeah, I think I could do a little more on this area. I was just thinking that yesterday. We have been thinking about ways to expand our markets and we always consider Central Texas to have a huge market compared to us here in deep south Texas, but the other day driving by a really nice neighborhood I was thinking why don’t we approach these people with a good CSA and we don’t have to be thinking about freight?
But sometimes it’s hard. Farming and other activities keep you busy all the time, and in the summer when we slow down we make repairs, planning and take care of all the things we didn’t have time during the growing season and this leaves us with almost no time to do more marketing. So I think we could do more in this area.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jennifer Buratti is currently a board member of the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. She was previously a grant project manager for the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality and Education and Outreach Coordinator for Texas State University.