Farm workers band together to launch cooperative flower market in Riverhead

Miguel Flores spent the past 20 years since moving to the U.S. from El Salvador working at nurseries across the East End. Now after two decades employed by others, he’s among a group of 10 farmworkers looking to carve out a new path in agriculture.

On Sunday morning, Mr. Flores of East Quogue and fellow members of the Long Island Farmworker Cooperative could be seen setting up plants outside their new weekly flower market on Roanoke Avenue in Riverhead. The events are a chance for the group to branch out on their own.

“This break is really beneficial for me,” Mr. Flores said through a translator Sunday.

The new group’s director, Juan Antonio Zuniga, said the cooperative was officially founded 10 months ago with six members — immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico — as a way to create equity for farm workers. The organization used donations to purchase the flowers being sold Sunday from Hispanic-owned nurseries on Long Island. The long-term goal is to obtain financing for the cooperative to purchase land and greenhouses to sell its own product.

“Our main objective is to be independent from a capitalistic system, for us to be the creators and the owners of our own benefits and at the same time to be an example for immigrant communities in this country,” Mr. Zuniga said. “We want to let everybody know that ‘Yes, we can.’ As migrant workers, we can be successful. As workers, we can grow our own future.”

Angel Reyes Rivas of Rural Migrant Ministries said most members of the cooperative are nursery workers who maintain full-time employment. They have been meeting weekly at the Grace Episcopal Church property, where the market will be held every Sunday, to plan for this week’s launch. They intend to return with even more plants in the coming weeks.

Mr. Rivas said Mr. Zuniga has been planning the cooperative for two years, but things really took off during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think after the pandemic, he was able to convince the other workers … [since] they didn’t really work during the pandemic,” he said.  “Some are undocumented, so they didn’t receive any sort of unemployment or any other support. They noticed that if they work for somebody, and something like this happens, there’s nothing they can do.”

Member Catalino Cruz said he’s participating in the cooperative for his children.

“I want them to just be able to own their own thing and not work for somebody else,” he said.

Mr. Flores, who is focusing solely on the cooperative and trying to make it a full-time job, said he and his father participated in a similar organization for coffee growers in El Salvador. The cooperative system is one he “believes in.”

“I ask you to keep supporting our work and keep buying the flowers and the plants so we can keep growing,” he said to those in attendance at Sunday’s opening.

The Long Island Farmworker Cooperative flower market will be held each Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 573 Roanoke Ave. in Riverhead.