Roberto Meza smiles as he inspects his crops. His weekly harvest of basil, arugula and peas had finally fallen into a farmer’s routine of growing, harvesting and selling – but it took years to get there.
As a first-generation farmer of color and immigrant, Meza struggled to make her dream the farm it is today.
“It’s really, really difficult for new farmers to get access to capital – let alone land – to start their own operations,” he said. “As a farmer of color who wants to get involved in this, there are so many more hurdles and challenges that we have to jump through.”
Time and again, loan officers have denied Meza and her business partner money for their sustainable microgreens farm.
“It was infuriating,” he said with a bitter laugh.
Meza said he now has a strategy to help other new farmers avoid the same challenges – one that gives him a market for his greens, provides local food to the community and helps the next generation of farmers. farmers to sow their future on the lands of Colorado.
“We need to support young farmers,” he said. “It’s important because that’s all we have.”
From artist to entrepreneur
As the first bite of fall blew over the eastern plains of Colorado, the sun’s rays filtered through the overcast sky to warm Meza’s greenhouse. Inside, fans hummed and rustled trays of microgreens on risers, powered by hydroponic sprinkler systems.
Meza’s smallholding produces about 100 pounds of fast-growing microgreens every week or so, but it took years of hard work to reach the first harvest.
In the early 2010s, he continued his work as an artist in New York. He majored in multimedia installation art – not crop yields – and his work helped him win a full scholarship for a graduate program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, did he declare.
He attended for a semester, fell ill, and returned home to Ohio, where he began exploring food as a way to heal himself.
“I started tinkering around in my basement with systems similar to the ones you see here,” he said, referring to grow piles in the greenhouse. “It fulfilled my desire to work with my hands.”
Below: Watch a long interview with Roberto Meza:
He met a friend from high school, Dave Demerling. They went into business together and bought land in 2014 to start their farm about 15 miles east of Denver International Airport.
They had help from their family but needed money to start the business, so they tried to get a loan.
“We gave them our business plan, we did a whole budget and pro forma, and we were denied the loan,” Meza said. “It’s like, come on!”
“It wasn’t the first refusal, and it wasn’t the last,” Demerling said.
Eventually they got the money. Meza said he started camping on their more than 30 acres before they had electricity or running water in a bid to revive the business. It took four years until their first harvest in 2018.
“It’s been a seed for so long, and it’s finally sprouting roots and shoots,” Meza said.
He believes he knows how to help prevent other farmers of color from going through the same struggle.
A hub for food and farmers
In Colorado, only about one in 20 farmers identify as Hispanic, the US Department of Agriculture has estimated. But data shows that more than 75% of those working on farms are Hispanic in the US Department of Labor region that includes Colorado.
“One of my dreams is for farm workers who want to participate in their own business to become farm owners,” Meza said.
At the heart of this dream is an aging warehouse in the Montbello neighborhood of Denver. Inside, Meza workers and fellow farmers pack their crops into boxes together, like an assembly line. This is the East Denver Food Hub, a second venture that Meza launched in 2020.
“We are not a non-profit organization,” he said. “We are a social enterprise to connect farmers to markets and offer aggregation, distribution and market access services.”
Local farmers from across the region bring their produce to the food hub as a central distribution point. Some of the boxes are sold to wholesalers or institutions like schools, and others are sent to families as lunch boxes.
Combining crops connects farmers to buyers who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in dealing with a dozen different small farms.
“We had to create a new organization to really meet our needs because there was none when we started farming,” Meza said.
Under the food hub, farmers can show bankers they have buyers lined up before they even plant a seed, which helps them get land loans more easily, Meza said.
“For me, as a first-generation farmer, I want to alleviate those challenges for others,” he said. “We’re able to create a sense of co-collaboration or co-creation that allows all of our communities to truly thrive.”
Grow the next generation
A few steps from Meza’s greenhouse in the Eastern Plains are two modified shipping containers, evidence of the work he is trying to encourage.
Inside the damp containers, Irving Reza tends to his mushroom harvest. In one, he pasteurizes and fertilizes the spores which he grows in 3-gallon plastic bags in the second container.
Reza said he started working on Meza and Demerling’s farm after the grower he previously worked for closed. After two weeks, he presented his mushroom house project to Meza, who said he had worked to help him get started.
Now Reza is bringing her mushrooms to the East Denver Food Hub to distribute alongside Meza’s microgreens. Meza hopes to expand his business for himself and others on his farm with larger institutional buyers like schools and hospitals.
In early September, the Greeley School District placed an order for 180 pounds of Meza peas — its biggest achievement yet and proof, he said, that more farmers like him are needed.
“They all want local,” he said, “but we don’t have enough farmers to supply them.”
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