Strawberry Farmers: A Love Story

Immigrants to US find opportunities amid strawberries

Santa Maria Strawberry Farmers

A while back I had the pleasure of spending a day with Delfina and Donato Olivera, a married strawberry farmer couple from Santa Maria. Not only did I have the pleasure of learning about them and their family, I also learned how to make Oaxocan Mole from Delfina who made this wonderful dish for us after a long day in the field. Be sure to check out the link to the recipe below after getting a glimpse into this wonderful couple.

“If I can get up, then I can continue.” – Donato Olivera

In the mid 90s Donato and Delfina were a young married couple picking strawberries to support themselves and their families. They were hard workers, determined to make ends meet and raise a happy and healthy family.

Today, Donato and Delfina are parents to five grown children, and grow strawberries on 140 acres in Santa Maria, California. With five kids all pursuing degrees and careers in environmental science, law and political science, there’s no doubt their children have inherited  their parents’ spirit of hard work, determination and dedication.

Santa Maria Strawberry Farmers

With 13 years of experience growing strawberries – and just about the same amount of time picking – Donato and Delfina have evolved into farmers who care deeply for the land, their community, and the 130 people who work for them. Donato says the most rewarding part of his job is the bond they share with the workers. “We don’t treat our team like they are employees – we treat them like they are family.” Delfina has learned different Mixtec dialects to communicate with their employees so they feel included and respected. They both agree there is further reward in working outside and growing a crop that the world enjoys.

While the rewards are many, the challenges – especially of the past – are not easily forgotten. Donato and Delfina recall the struggles they had getting their ranch up and running, working seven days a week with only four employees, while managing a family of small children. With only two acres, they weren’t making much money, and as immigrants from Oaxaca, Mexico, they had the additional challenge of adjusting to a second language and a new culture. But they overcame the obstacles and are proud of the journey.

Santa Maria Strawberry Farmers

That same journey continues as they face new challenges with the ever changing and unpredictable farming environment. In recent years they lost an entire crop due to inclement weather and didn’t make a profit. Despite seasons like that, and knowing that “everything can be lost,” the Oliveras remain passionate about farming and plan to continue for years to come. Donato’s motto is, “If I can get up, then I can continue.”

They also lean on each other for inspiration and motivation. As partners in life and farming, the couple seems inseparable. When asked what it’s like to both work and live together, Delfina laughs and says it helps that they do very different jobs – and work at different locations on the ranch.

Strawberry farming leaves the husband and wife team little time to travel or pursue other interests, but family time is highly valued. Delfina loves to cook for her family and is known for her Oaxacan mole, homemade tortillas and salsa. We were fortunate enough to enjoy her chicken mole when we were graciously invited to their home for dinner. Delfina’s delicious recipe can be found here.

Donato plays guitar with a band called “Sin Nombre” (Without Name), comprised of friends and family.  The band, well-known in the Mixtec community, plays at family events for special occasions such as weddings and birthdays.

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