By Madeline Schultz, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
“Communication is my biggest challenge,” decided Lorena Castillo, “I’m kind of proud my pickers like me.” During strawberry harvest, Lorena’s job is quality assurance and she takes it very seriously. She is just one of several family members involved in her mother-in-law’s farm business in Plant City, Florida.
It was a privilege for me to visit Castillo Farms on a sunny day with the National Farmers Union and Annie’s Project Women’s Conference attendees. About 50 farm and ranch women from across the United States were inspired and renewed during the conference held in Clearwater Beach, Florida, January 18-21, 2015. Through a collaborative grant project, the USDA Risk Management Agency partially supported the conference as well as Annie’s Project courses in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.
Hilda Castillo, a first generation immigrant from Mexico, started the fruit and vegetable farm with her husband, Fidel Castillo, and one acre of strawberries. “She is a smart lady and very determined. She is always out here working. She’s my role model,” described Lorena of her Mother-in-law, Hilda. “My father-in-law works very hard, but she is the manager,” Lorena confirmed.
Hilda worked as a migrant fruit and vegetable picker between Florida and Michigan for several years as she and her husband raised their four sons. “She wanted a better life for her sons. She wanted to build a business of her own for them,” explained Lorena. Hilda saved money and a farmer she worked for leased her one acre of land to grow strawberries on; that one acre turned into two, then five. Now Hilda owns 12 acres and leases 88 acres of land in Hillsborough County, outside of Tampa, Florida. The county is home to more than 12,000 acres of strawberry fields.
“All four boys work with their mother. They are proud of her and proud of the farm. The littlest one is nine years old,” smiled Lorena with obvious pride herself. This small farm dream was built with the strength of Hilda’s family. Her brothers, sisters, parents and other family members all worked together and shared their aspirations. Now, Hilda’s brothers also successfully operate strawberry farms in the county.
Beyond the family, the Castillos had help from USDA, Farm Credit and the University of Florida Extension Service. In 2005, the Castillos applied to USDA's Farm Service Agency to receive funding to install their own well and irrigation system. At that time, they were farming 25 acres including leased land, but with the help of USDA and Farm Credit, were able to increase their farmable acreage to approximately 50 acres by 2010.
The main crop on Castillo Farms is strawberries during the fall and winter. In the spring and summer the family grows melons, squash, peppers and okra. It takes about 40 local seasonal employees to bring in the harvests. All produce is marketed through the Sweet Life Farms company, began by the McDonald family the 1970’s. The company operates 40 refrigerated coolers in the county where individual growers aggregate their fruit and vegetable harvest.
Over time, Hilda has been able to improve soil and water quality, and reduce soil erosion. The desire to be good stewards of the land led the family to partner with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), with whom they developed a conservation plan for the farm. To further improve water and air quality, the Castillo's follow the University of Florida's pest and nutrient recommendations.
Lorena pointed to the picture of her mother-in-law with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. It brings out a funny story. Just like this wonderful visit with the NFU Women’s Conference attendees, Hilda has always been happy to show visitors around the farm business she and her family have grown. So when the Hillsborough County Farm Bureau called to ask if Tom Vilsack could visit in 2010, Hilda immediately said yes. It wasn’t until his actual arrival that she realized Mr. Vilsack was the USDA Secretary. It was one of the especially happy occasions among many that this hard working American farm family has enjoyed together.
The tour day was organized by National Farmers Union and sponsored by Farm Credit. Also included on the tour was G&F Farms - Driscoll strawberry growers and plant breeders; and Keel & Curley Winery - blueberry growers, wine and beer makers, and agritourism providers.