A version of this story was originally published on kitchentableadvisors.org.
For Gladys Mondragon, co-owner of Sunshine Organics, the work she does is core to who she is. Gladys is a second-generation farmer. Raised by her parents Camilo and Carmen Mondragon, she grew up in the Pajaro Valley. She helped her family grow and sell berries. She spent her childhood playing in her family’s fields, accompanying her parents to farmers markets, and picking fresh berries off the vine. As Gladys started college, she began to work for her parents part-time as a way to pay for her schooling. She focused on their organic certification and expansion into farmers markets. Eventually, she and her husband Ralphie decided to formally invest in the farm. They wanted to support their growing family while simultaneously honing their skills and experience in agriculture.
Sunshine is Born
In 2016, Gladys and Ralphie became the official owner-operators of the farm, renaming the operation “Sunshine Organics.” Gladys took over the managerial and operational aspects of the business while Ralphie handled most of the production. Despite the shift in ownership, Gladys’ parents are still supportive with many aspects of the farm. Camilo and Ralphie have grown particularly close. Ralphie looks to Camilo for guidance and knowledge as the farm continues to evolve.
To Gladys, farming is a symbiotic relationship. She provides for her community just as much as her community provides for her. With every product, she strives to grow the best quality crop to care for her local foodshed. Her instinct to nourish has always been a part of her. It is a legacy Gladys inherited and can share with her two children. They spend their days, like she once did, tagging along to farmers markets and playing in the fields. Beyond her business, Gladys feels motivated to nurture her family, raising her two children, and her community as a whole. In addition to farming, both Gladys and Ralphie work full-time jobs to support their community. Gladys coaches soccer professionally and her husband acts as Vice Principal of Watsonville High School. Gladys holds these roles simultaneously and proudly, not expecting anything in return. She embodies her commitment to service of those around her.
Seeding a Relationship
When Gladys went to Kitchen Table Advisors for support as a new business owner, Tania Zuñiga became her farm business advisor. At first, Gladys was hesitant to fully open up. They began to meet more frequently and Tania was able to empathize and relate to Gladys as a woman, entrepreneur, and farmer. Gladys, in turn, grew comfortable relying on Tania for both personal and business advice. With the trust between them growing, they began to partner confidently. Over the past three years, the two have worked to expand Sunshine’s markets. They’ve also secured land stability and established sustainable financial management and lifestyle practices.
Gladys’ business had celebrated some major milestones prior to working with KTA, like organic certification. But she was still looking to organize and strengthen Sunshine Organics while balancing the other parts of her full life.
Growing the Farm
Tania and Gladys started their work together by upgrading the business’ bookkeeping system. The goal was to help track capital and comply with their organic certification requirements. Tania also supported Gladys as she began applying and selling at other farmers markets. They hoped to expand Sunshine Organics’ only market stream. While Gladys, Ralphie, and her parents tested different market opportunities, Tania helped them foster new relationships, organize their farmers market schedule, and manage logistics.
Once Gladys honed Sunshine’s business operations, conversations with Tania turned to land conservation and ownership. Affordable, small-scale organic land parcels are incredibly scarce in the Central Coast. As Gladys transitioned from one parcel to the next, she continued to experience setbacks in her crop quality and her family’s stability. Her parents had initially purchased the land they had been farming in 2015. Though the purchase marked a huge milestone for their business, high interest rates and mortgage payments complicated the process. In 2021, Gladys, Ralphie, and Tania started organizing financial information and filling out applications. The intention was to refinance the property her parents purchased.
Finally, in February 2022, Gladys and Ralphie were able to successfully refinance their house. They used their leftover equity to pay off the mortgage on the land. This land purchase was transformational for Sunshine Organics. Gladys and Ralphie were finally able to invest in their long-term vision for soil health and biodiversity. At the same time, they ensured greater security for their business. More recently, Gladys and Ralphie have leased a secondary 20-acre parcel. This will enable them to expand their production. Tania aided this process by connecting them with the Elkhorn Slough Land Trust.
Creating Space for Latina Entrepreneurship
For Tania and Gladys, no two advising sessions look the same. As Gladys juggles her roles as mother, coach, and farmer, she meets Tania everywhere. From early in the morning in the field as she starts her day, to later at night with crying toddlers running between Tania and her husband to get data and organize financial records.
The one-on-one advising sessions that Gladys and Tania have shared over the years represent the first time that Gladys has had any dedicated space for business planning. Creating this time and space for herself as a business owner, among the numerous other community roles she holds, has been an especially valuable part of Gladys’ growth as she continues to build confidence. Gladys also had a desire to work with other women business owners to whom she could relate and derive support. Thus, when KTA’s Women in Agriculture Group started to bring together Latina entrepreneurs on the Central Coast, she jumped at the opportunity. She wanted to connect with other Latina business owners committed to sustainable, small-scale agriculture.
Through the group, she was able to contribute to and immerse herself in an empowering space. A space dedicated to offering technical and emotional support for women like herself. Gladys received a nomination as part of the steering committee for a new, permanent spin-off group called Red Solidaria de Mujeres en Agricultura. This allows her to continue nurturing the leadership and solidarity of both herself and her fellow women farmers.