Planting Hope

Joel Pelayo grows community at Raíces Cooperative Farm

Story and photos by Drew Myron

At Raíces Cooperative Farm in Hood River, Joel Pelayo brings hope and health to the Latino community.

Warmed by sunlight and in the company of friends, Joel Pelayo is quietly planting roots. At the Raíces Cooperative Farm in Hood River—and all over the Hood River Valley—Joel brings hope and health to the Latino community.

Started in 2009, Raíces—“roots” in Spanish—is a homegrown agriculture program with two plots of land in Hood River and a third under development in Odell.

The 1-acre organic farms host 30 Spanish-speaking families. Each devotes 10 hours a week of garden service in exchange
for land on which to grow vegetables and enjoy fresh air, exercise, and connection with others.

Raíces is run by The Next Door, a nonprofit organization that fosters community empowerment and provides fiscal support for the unique agricultural project.

While the emphasis is on growing food, Raíces also cultivates a sense of ownership, accomplishment, and community.

“It’s important that families can continue learning, exercising, and getting healthy,” says Joel, who was instrumental in starting the program. “This farm is another path to better mental health and well-being. And it’s fun.”

Joel walks the talk. At 64, he has dedicated half his life to the community. For nearly 30 years, he has worked with area farmworkers and families as a community health worker at The Next Door.

For many years, Joel worked as family services coordinator for Head Start and traveled throughout the United States offering support and resources. He is a member of Gorge Grown Food Security Coalition, working on diversity issues. He facilitates a domestic violence support group for Latino men and leads a group of Latino professionals within the Mid- Columbia Health Equity Advocates.

“Joel is a compassionate leader,” says Anna Osborn, program manager at The Next Door. “He has such a special role. The work he does is just a part of who he is.”

Farming is a family affair for Elvia Guadarrama, left, who enjoys spending time in the garden with her son, Aldo.

The youngest of five children, Joel grew up in rural Mexico and was raised by a single mother who worked hard to feed her large family. Joel was only 7 years old when he went to work on a farm that had no irrigation, primitive tools, and cows to plow the fields. Payment came at the end of the season when the farmer shared the harvest with Joel’s family.

“I come from a very poor family,” he says. “We had to find a way to survive.” Joel’s struggle continued as a young adult. He worked a variety of jobs—in hotels, restaurants, and a shipyard— scraping up just enough to get by.

At 30 and newly married, Joel and his wife, Irma Galvez de la Mora, aspired for a better life. They headed to Hood River, where Irma had family.

Arriving in the United States, Joel spoke little English and worked hard to learn the language, get a driver’s license, and support his family.

Joel found work in the orchards. The couple made a home in Odell and soon welcomed a son. Junior was born with Down syndrome, and he requires steady attention.

Because he has traveled a difficult road, Joel offers a unique understanding and support to Latino families struggling to make a new life in the Gorge.

“It’s important to know how people experience the challenges in life,” he says. “When you bring them resources, they trust you, and they have hope. That’s my favorite part.”

Latinos comprise 12% of Oregon’s population. In Hood River County, Latinos are 32% of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Because many are undocumented and uncounted, the actual percentages are likely higher.

More than a typical community garden, Raíces is a collaborative farm. Members make decisions collectively using the model of sociocracy, a system that emphasizes the need to hear and include all voices. Decisions are reached through open and honest conversation.

“Though it often takes longer to reach consensus, it’s a more equitable process,” Anna says.

Joel Pelayo is a founding member of Raíces, an agriculture program with two locations in Hood River, and a third under development in Odell.

The farm features an economic development component, with members selling their crops at Mercado del Valle, a farmers market in Odell. The pandemic, however, has stalled those efforts.

It is a challenge to find places to grow. In an area yielding premium prices for every inch of real estate, securing space is no small feat. Raíces has worked with private landowners to negotiate use agreements.

At a Saturday morning work party, farmers busily prepare for the Raíces Plant Sale, an annual event raising more than $10,000 for farm operations.

For Elvia and Norberto Guadarrama, who live in Odell and work at Stadelman Fruit Co., the farm is a family affair. They appreciate having a place to see friends and plant peppers, tomatoes, and green beans.

“Coming here is fun to do on our days off,” says Elvia, digging her hands into the soil.

As he looks over a freshly tilled field and a greenhouse filled with young plants, Joel sets his hope on a new season.

What is his next goal?

“Maybe a huge greenhouse,” he says with a smile, “so we could grow all around the year.”

Raíces Cooperative Farm sites are at 1428 Barker Road near Hood River Transfer Station and 1100 Tucker Road near Spirit of Grace Church. The Odell Community Garden is in the planning stages. Contact Anna Osborn, The Next Door program manager, at (541) 436-0313 or email Anna, or go to The Next Door website.