Floods damage organic farm, not the drive to succeed

After years of building her business, Maria Inez Catalán faces hurdles head-on as she pledges to bounce back from Lovers Lane flooding

“Todo muerto! I need to start over,” María Inez Catalán says, throwing her hands in the air, still managing to sound determined. She is strong and her bright eyes are direct and confident, even in the wake of calamity.

Catalán is at the counter of her little restaurant, La Fogata in Tres Pinos, where she uses the fresh produce from her Catalan Family Farm acreage, downstream from the low-lying Lovers Lane neighborhood, which has been severely impacted by Hollister’s recent floods. 

“I walked around and I cried,” she says, talking about when it became clear that everything in her fields was lost, rotting in a foot or two of water. The floodwater on Frazier Lake Road totally overtook her plot of land. In her photos, the delicate celery leaves poke up, reaching for the sun, but there’s no hope. 

Catalán and her family run the restaurant and use its kitchen to prepare salsas. But outside of this, she has gradually, over many years, made a place for herself in medium-scale organic farming and selling her produce around the Bay Area.

Her family and the field workers that make up her team grow vegetables such as cauliflower, kale, chard, green onion. celery, fava beans, cilantro and strawberries. 

Catalán, who came from Guerrero, Mexico, nearly 30 years ago, speaks a little English — enough to get the point across. She says that she hopes that with her five children, (ranging from 38 down to 5 years old), and her 11 grandchildren, the farm will prosper. “I need workers!” she says, half-laughing, half-serious.

Despite all the turmoil that came with the flood, Catalán kept her appointment as a guest speaker at the 37th Annual Eco-Farm conference held in Pacific Grove after the first heavy rains. She and another grower, Javier Zamora, had been asked to talk to a largely Spanish-speaking audience about their independent ventures into the business-side of agriculture. In their presentation, "De Piscador a Productor," the two spoke to a full room about how they have gone from migrant workers to another level in farming.  

Catalán told the group she came to Arizona as a child in the 60s with her father and grandfather, working in agriculture. Eventually, she settled in California with her mother, selling traditional Mexican produce in Southern California. She said that in the beginning, it was mostly to pregnant women and Chinese people.

Catalán explained her love for farming came from early in her life. “I had a beautiful childhood, surrounded by mounds of vegetables," she said. “Later, when I heard people talk about organic, I thought that was the same as what we did, the same as our ancestors.”

She spoke of many difficult periods in her past."We had a couple winters where the children and I would walk along the roads picking up cans and selling them." But Catalán says that she wanted to learn and be a better mother. She told the audience she knew she wanted, "not to spoil the children" and to "become part of the system and advance.” So, working part time doing odd jobs for the Rural Development Center in Salinas, she had the chance to learn more and get a foothold. 

Speaking at the Eco-Farm workshop, Catalán explained how she took this opportunity, became the first Latina to farm commercially and created the first CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in Hollister and gradually, building trust, found more land to farm and expand her business. She encouraged the young listeners to work in groups, find business partners through churches and schools and use each other’s strengths.

​Catalán told the audience that her team has had successful years, selling more than $1.5 million in produce one year. Still, in 2013, her well failed and she has been rebuilding her business since. Then, this year's rain began. 

“I have lost everything with the floods,” she told workshop attendees. “Right now, because I don’t have anything, I am just going to work. With all these problems, I have lost 20 farmers' markets because we had no produce and I have salsas, but no place to sell our product.” 

Catalán told the group about a non-profit in Oakland that is helping farmers affected by the floods. 

“Poco a poco,” she said. Little by little, she faces the future.

“I am starting all over again. I have my children helping me and La Fogata, the restaurant in Tres Pinos. My daughter, Ana, my administrator and my sons help with the business and driving tractors,” she explained.

A survivor, Catalán was already looking ahead to the next step. 

“I will even out the soil when the flooding stops,” she told the crowd. Still at risk with everything, she spotted opportunity. Her eyes sparked with an optimistic thought and she said, “There is good soil brought in by water.” 



Leslie David

Leslie David is a Bay Area independent reporter/producer and is a BenitoLink founding board member. She has produced for radio, television, newspaper and magazines in both California and Wyoming. She was with KRON-TV News in San Francisco as camera-woman, editor and field producer, where she won the Commonwealth Club's Thomas Storke Award with Linda Yee for their series on the Aids Epidemic. She started as a small market news reporter shooting her own 16mm film at KEYT-TV Santa Barbara. Leslie lives on a ranch with her family in San Benito County.