Cuban-American Grower Blends Farming Heritage with Compassionate Conservation
By Barbara Bowen
Luis Echevarria’s journey from Cuba to Virginia’s Eastern Shore has had more than a few twists and turns but seems to have come full circle on La Caridad Farm, his 39.75 acre egg and pastured meat operation in Accomack County.
“I grew up on a farm where we raised everything we ate,” says Echevarria. “My dream was to come to America, go to school, and have a job where I could be outside and work with animals. Why not buy my own farm where people can know where their meat is coming from?”
Echevarria took his first steps on the path to farm ownership when he arrived at the airport in Miami, Florida, on Christmas Eve in 1995. He didn’t speak English and worked at a grocery store while he learned enough of the language to pass a placement exam and gain acceptance to the University of Florida.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in Animal Science, Luis worked in swine breeding and processing before landing a trainee position with Perdue Farms. He moved up to farm manager in Princess Anne, Md., before taking a position with the Virginia Employment Commission on the state’s Eastern Shore.
Echevarria’s work as a Farm Placement Specialist keeps him in close contact with local growers and nurseries, providing employment certifications for migrant workers. He says he kept noticing a small, handwritten sign as he drove by the property and finally stopped to read the message, which turned out to be a “for sale” sign.
At that time in 2012, he and his “better half,” Stacia Childers, were at a crossroads as he contemplated applying to veterinary school in Colorado. Neither liked the idea of relocating and going back to one income while he went to school full time.
“We were originally interested in the house,” says Luis. “We asked the owner if she would be willing to subdivide the property, but she said she had promised her mother that she would sell the land to someone who would keep it in agriculture.”
Luis met with Dorine Ross, Senior Farm Loan Officer from the Farm Service Agency to inquire about financing options that would allow him to acquire the farm property and start his farm business. After discussing programs available through FSA, Luis and Stacia decided that a Farm Ownership loan in conjunction with a term operating loan for breeding livestock and equipment were the best financing options to begin their journey.
“It was hard work putting together a business plan and completing all the paperwork, but I’m glad I did it,” says Echevarria. “We’re also thankful that she [the owner] sat on the property for more than eight months while we got the loan.”
Luis says he learned about NRCS technical and financial assistance from FSA. Once he closed on his loan, Echevarria stopped by to talk to Accomac District Conservationist Tina Jerome. He shared his resource concerns and vision for the operation and they worked together on a conservation plan to help him achieve his goals.
“I have 21 acres of tillable land and around 17 acres in woods,” says Echevarria. “I want to turn all my tillable land into pasture. Right now, our focus is free range chickens, ducks and meat rabbits, but I’d like to add in feeder pigs in the early to late summer along with lamb and beef. I don’t plan to be certified as organic, but I want to run my operation in the most natural way possible.”
His plan includes conservation practices to expand available pasture for his animals; hedgerows and windbreaks to create wildlife habitat; a Forest Stewardship/Management Plan; and a seasonal high tunnel to grow winter feed for his chickens and additional products for market.
“Free range chickens don’t get really adequate nutrition if they just stay in the pasture all winter,” explains Luis. “We need to give them supplemental feed anyway, so we plan to use one section of the hoop house to keep them warm and protected in deep litter and feed them fresh greens grown in another section.”
Echevarria says he’d also like to use the hoop house to extend the growing season for tomatoes and plant other vegetables for his animals as well as trying to grow tropical fruit like papaya and ginger. Then, he will rotate uses among the sections each season, producing both nutritious eggs AND great compost for crops grown in the former chicken house.
The Virginia Department of Forestry has approved his Forestry Management Plan, which includes thinning of existing pines to plant hardwoods. The forestry practices should promote habitat for deer and turkey, which Echevarria hunts for food. He is also putting together a list of shrubs (hedgerows and windbreaks) to order for planting in early spring.
Both Luis and Stacia work full time, so the first year of operation was challenging. After purchasing the property, they initially focused on renovations to the home and then worked on building a customer base for their products. Echevarria and Childers have a loan for constructing a farm store and are thinking of using part of that money to build a small processing facility* for what they produce on the farm.
Echevarria says sales are mostly coming by word of mouth right now. LaCaridad Farm has a farm sign and its own FaceBook page. The couple is working on a web page and will sell products at the Onancock Farmer’s Market this year.
The name “La Caridad” has a dual meaning for Luis. It both honors his grandmother Caridad and translates to “charity” in English, highlighting his family farming heritage and commitment to treating his animals with compassion and kindness during their lifetimes.
Learn more about La Caridad Farm at https://www.facebook.com/LaCaridadFarm.
*Note: Cuts of meat from larger animals such as pork, lamb and beef will still go to the closest USDA processing facility in Delaware.