Members of the new Long Island Farmworkers Cooperative yesterday at the opening of its new market in Riverhead. Photo: Peter Blasl

Local immigrant farmworkers have formed a cooperative to grow and sell their own plants.

It’s a step toward taking control of their own destiny with an ownership stake in a business enterprise, say founders of the Long Island Farmworkers Cooperative, some of whom have been laborers on farms here for decades.

“It’s empowering for all farmworkers,” said Long Island Farmworkers Cooperative cofounder and director Juan Antonio Zuñiga at a grand opening celebration of the co-op’s market yesterday in Riverhead.

“Our main objective is to be independent and at the same time to be an example for immigrant communities in this country,” Zuñiga told a group of workers, organizers and supporters gathered yesterday for the new market’s ribbon cutting ceremony at the Amandla Center on Roanoke Avenue (the former Grace Episcopal Church.)

“We want to let everyone know that ‘Yes we can,’” Zuñiga said, his voice rising for emphasis and a broad smile lighting up his face.

“As immigrant workers, we can be successful,” he said. “As workers we can grow our own futures.”

Long Island Farmworkers Cooperative cofounder and director Juan Antonio Zuñiga speaks to a group assembled at the grand opening of the new market Sunday. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Zuñiga said the cooperative members want to let other immigrants know they can make it in the future, “that we are part of this country’s economy.”

Long Island’s agricultural industry has relied on migrant and immigrant labor for many decades — migrant workers from the South, immigrants from Europe and immigrants from Central America. With an inadequate agricultural guest worker program and immigration laws in the United States that make legal immigration from Central American countries nearly impossible, Long Island farmers — like the ag industry nationwide — have relied heavily on undocumented immigrants to plant, tend and harvest their crops. Existing laws and wages paid to laborers have also made it nearly impossible for undocumented farmworkers to have access to enough capital to pursue their own farming businesses.

The cofounders of the cooperative hope to help change that, by pooling individual resources to provide an opportunity for ownership.

“Like any other American dream, we want to be the owners of our own land,” said Anel Barretto, who has lived here for 22 years. She and her husband Catalino are members of the cooperative.

The ceremonial red ribbon is snipped by co-op member Wilma and her son David. Photo: Denise Civiletti

“This is a new beginning in my life,” said Wilma, a native of Guatemala who has been a farmworker on the East End for more than 10 years. Her young son David snipped the ceremonial red satin ribbon after the Rev. Gerardo Romo-Garcia, Episcopal Diocese of Long Island’s Vicar for Hispanic Ministry, gave an invocation, praying for blessings “for all who benefit from this — those who grow the plants, those who buy them, those who plant them.”

The cooperative is currently purchasing plants from immigrant-owned nurseries and plans to save its profits from plant sales to buy its own land. Yesterday, the market offered baskets of flowering plants, as well as cell packs and flats of various annuals and vegetable seedlings. There will be even more plants for sale next Sunday. Zuñiga said. The cooperative plans to open the market at the Amandla Center every Sunday through fall.

Zuñiga said individuals like himself who had experience working in farm cooperatives in their native countries began talking about starting a cooperative here about three years ago. They finally took action in 2020, he said.

The project is being supported by the statewide advocacy group, Rural & Migrant Ministry, which has its Long Island offices at the Roanoke Avenue church.

Angel Reyes, right, Rural & Migrant Ministry coordinator and Miguel Flores with other co-op members at the opening of the market Sunday. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Angel Reyes Rivas, Rural & Migrant Ministry’s Long Island Coordinator is working with the cooperative, helping with logistics and marketing.

“It’s been an incredible year despite everything that we’ve gone through,” Reyes said yesterday before the ribbon-cutting. 
“The workers here — they’ve put a lot of effort in this, They have experienced a lot. Many of them have gone through COVID, their families have gone through COVID and for them to fight against all that and make this happen — for me, it’s really emotional, it’s really special,” he said.

Olga El Sehamy, the director of human services for Suffolk County, attended yesterday’s ribbon-cutting and presented the cooperative with a proclamation from Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

“Farmworkers are the building blocks of our economy,” El Sehamy said. “I am also an immigrant. I came from Mexico many, many years ago. It helps me understand better that all dreams start with a seed.”

The co-op is selling t-shirts and caps featuring its logo in addition to plants. Photo: Denise Civiletti
Photo: Denise Civiletti

The market will be open on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Amandla Center, 973 Roanoke Avenue, Riverhead.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.