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On the Central Coast and across California, Latinos are a big part of the state's billion-dollar agricultural industry. Utilized for decades as a key part of the agricultural workforce, they have increasingly taken on a new set of titles in recent years: owners and operators.

On Nov. 8, a portion of the nation's more than 90,000 Latino agricultural producers will meet in Santa Maria for "Growing Together," the fourth conference for Latino ranchers, farmers and agricultural producers in the U.S.

Sponsored by the National Center for Appropriate Technology and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, the annual conference gives Latino producers an opportunity to connect with one another and tap into resources available at the local, state and federal level.

"The reason why the conference started is because we saw that there was a big need to outreach to Hispanic producers," explained State Conservationist Carlos Suarez, head of the Natural Resources Conservation Service in California. "There's a misconception that you have a lot of [Hispanic] laborers, but out of the 90,000 Latino farmers in the U.S., roughly 15,000 are here in the state."

Demographic data collected every seven years by the USDA shows that, in 2012, 13 percent of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo county farm operators — 871 individuals — are of Spanish, Hispanic or Latino descent. Collected as part of the agency's Agricultural Census, the region's 714 Latino-run farms contribute approximately $544 million to the state's multibillion-dollar agricultural industry.

On a dusty plot of land off Telephone Road east of Santa Maria, Virginia Cortez and her sons, Omar and Luis Guevara, can be found tending to rows of fruits and vegetables.

"My dad used to be a farmer in [Zacatecas,] Mexico, and when he came here, he worked out in the fields picking whatever he could," recalled Cortez, the conference's keynote speaker. "My parents would go to Stockton for the tomato season and follow the crops around the area."

Eventually the family settled in Santa Maria as sharefarmers, offering them greater stability and a chance to stay together. While Cortez said she originally considered pursuing a career in teaching, her experience doing payroll and tracking production for her parents inspired her to pursue a full-time career in agriculture.

"It was exciting for me to do that and to see how devoted my parents were to what they were growing," she said. "I didn't know how to explain it, but that's what made me want to get into this business."

Since purchasing in 1999 the 10-acre parcel of land she previously leased, Cortez and her family have expanded the operation to span 50 acres. Brussels sprouts make up the bulk of their October harvest, but everything from beans and blackberries to kale and strawberries can be found growing at Rancho La Familia, the family's organic farm.

As an established Santa Maria Valley producer, Cortez said she wants to use her experience and keynote address to advise and support the next generation of Latino farmers — especially women.

"I know a lot of farmers — young kids, too, who are farming a couple of acres — that come here to ask for advice. I try to give them as much advice as I can so they can continue," she said. "We don't have a lot of new farmers who have gotten into the field and have kept on going. Most of them start farming [and find out] they want to do something else."

Suarez said the conference, which typically attracts more than 300 producers from across the West, will improve access to everything from technical to financial assistance programs.

"When we started the conference four years ago ... a lot of [attendees] didn't know much about USDA as a department, or the agencies within the organization that offer programs, technical assistance or services," he said. "We decided we needed to do something and outreach to them."

All sessions will be held in Spanish, Suarez said, explaining that though many of the producers are bilingual, organizers would like to make them feel as comfortable as possible when receiving the information. English translation will be available to individuals who need it.

"We try to make it so the producers feel comfortable to receive the information in their native language," Suarez said. "The producers may not understand the requirements, may be presented with English documents [or] may feel intimidated to go into an office and ask for assistance. We want to break that barrier and tell them 'We're here, we speak your language and we're going to assist you in any way we can.'"

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Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.