A great many people walk on by, but there are those who stop. It’s a small stall, as vendor space goes at the Davis Farmers Market. It’s fundamental, easily passed, as it doesn’t sport the eye-catching retail design displayed by some of the other vendors. Small baskets, boxes, piles. Whatever’s fresh that week is on display from Cadena Ranch.
In a few weeks Ramon Cadena turns 80. He and his wife, Lucila, have been at the market since its earliest days. He farmed more back then. Today his godchild, who is in the Capay Organic and Farm Fresh To You organization, grows crops on 14 of the Cadenas’ 27 acres in Esparto.
I dropped by their ranch earlier this month. Their dog, a chicken and a dozen cats showed varying levels of interest in me. We sat in resin chairs under a big tree in the side yard.
Today there are 4,000 small farmers who are certified and sell at California farmers’ markets. Few would tell a story like the Cadenas.
The federal government started the bracero program in 1942, looking to bring manual laborers from Mexico at a time when American men were at war. A reversal, really, because in the 1930s half a million Mexican laborers were deported — it was the Great Depression, a hard-scrabble time in the farm fields.
Ramon came to the U.S. in 1955. For the Mexicans, emigrating held promise of a new life. But poor pay, harsh conditions, irregularities in the availability of food meant that, for many, they were difficult days.
“All the houses bosses would provide were like chicken coops,” Ramon recalled. “I thought, ‘Good Lord, give me the strength to build an adobe house.’”
He’d known Lucila from their hometown, Guadalajara, since the age of 12. The way he saw it, he couldn’t bring her to the States and start a family until he had this house. “I made bricks, and one day I could say, ‘Now I am ready.’” That was 1962.
The house he’d built was in Rumsey. He and Lucy then worked hard on their dream. They had three children. Ramon commuted to Woodland where he could learn English when he wasn’t otherwise working. That paid off, as he secured a bookkeeping position with Diamond Lumber in Esparto, where he worked for 14 years.
One day the Cadenases went to check out an old house in Esparto, more than 100 years old, that was in terrible shape. Successive renters had taken their toll. Still, they figured they had the skills and industry to make it habitable, so they bought it in 1971. They did the house over and still live there today.
When the Davis Farmers Market got underway, Ramon and Lucy were among the early vendors. They brought nuts, fruit and vegetables. It was a different era. Many of the vendors were backyard growers, not needing to make a living. Ramon also remembers a vendor from north of Woodland who was selling stolen melons at prices that undercut legitimate vendors like him. He served on the market’s board for a time.
These days Ramon puts in six hours of work in the morning, then calls it a day. “I wish he would quit,” Lucy said, but this is clearly his life. Right now, rows of young leeks, others of basil, more of broccoli. Citrus trees. Cactus. Peach trees that Lucy had grown from pits, which just isn’t done in American agriculture. And then there are all the people they have known at the market through the generations.
“All his children and grandchildren grew up at the market,” said Randii MacNear, market manager. “People ask after him if he isn’t there. He’s like the grandfather of the market.”
Ramon and Lucy haven’t forgotten where they’ve come from. Suzanne DePalmas, a volunteer, brings them day-old bread from Davis stores during Saturday market hours — sometimes enough to fill half the bed of their pickup, Ramon said. He and Lucy then bring it to St. Martin’s R.C. Church in Esparto on Saturday evenings for distribution to people in need. Day-old, that’s nothing.
For Ramon and Lucy Cadena, the bracero program did open a door. It got them here, and enabled eventual citizenship. The road was hard, the one they traveled. Not that you would know if you passed by their stall on Saturdays, where they observe and step up to greet those they know, and those they don’t.
— Dan Kennedy, a Davis resident, has a long history with the bounty of gardens and small farms. Reach him at [email protected]