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The New American Farmer: Immigration, Race, and the Struggle for Sustainability

The New American Farmer coverreview by Liz Henderson

The new farmers whose stories Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern recounts are Latino/a farmers who have miraculously managed, despite the many obstacles she enumerates, to move from farmworkers to farm owners in the US. Out of the dozens of farmers she interviewed, almost all use organic practices, though only two are certified organic. Since the NOFAs, as well as the National Organic Coalition and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, seek to become more inclusive and to join in dismantling the racism that distorts our society, we would do well to heed Minkoff-Zern’s recommendations for reaching out more effectively to Latino/a farmers.

Today, an assistant professor of Food Studies at Syracuse University, Minkoff-Zern started the research for this book as a graduate student in 2011 and traveled to five different regions of the country, including New York, where ag agency staffers, farmers market managers and other researchers helped her locate the farmers, many of whom speak little English and lack legal status. As a result of her travels, she is certain that the US Agricultural census underestimates the true numbers of Latino/a farmers since many of them rent land, avoid government offices and have not been included in programs for farmers. She reports on a few programs that offer training for Mexican and other Latino/a farmworkers in becoming a farm manager or owner: the Small Farms Program at Washington State University, Crossroads Community Food Network in Maryland, Viva Farms in the DC area, the Latino Economic Development Center in Minnesota and the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) in California. Over the twenty plus years, ALBA has helped launch dozens of Latino/a-owned farms through its courses and incubator. I have presented there several times on how to make your farm fair to the people who work on it. Although few of the ALBA students expected to hire non-family members, they appreciated the resources I shared on an integrated approach to farm safety and good working conditions.

With just a few interesting exceptions, the Latino/a farmers Minkoff-Zern has located farm on a small scale, from ten to forty acres, using “alternative farming techniques” they learned from family traditions, alternatives that are familiar to NOFA farmers and homesteaders. The Latino/a farmers grow a diversity of crops including many that are essential to the Mexican cuisine: feeding their own families healthy food is one of their major goals. Food sovereignty, control over their own food supply, is a crucial value for them. Instead of chemicals, they use integrated pest management, employ mostly family labor and sell direct, often through farmers’ markets.

The Mexican émigré farmers highlighted in this book have struggled long and hard to reach the status of independent farmer. The hardships of running a farm pale against the benefit of regaining control of their own work and lives. Minkoff-Zern summarizes the obstacles: “Besides the typical challenges of becoming a new farmer, which include lack of access to start-up capital, land, labor and markets, immigrant farmers must contend with their citizenship status, race and ethnicity, as well as linguistic, literary and educational limitations.” (p. 5) To their advantage, coming from farming backgrounds in Mexico, these farmers already know how to farm, and they know how to work hard and live off the fruit of their own labor. That they still want to farm after years doing underpaid and often exploited farmwork reveals how strongly they cherish their agrarian traditions. Stacked against them are layers of prejudice, narrow-minded rural networks, and the lack of social and economic programs designed to help them along. Minkoff-Zern reports on USDA programs that fail to reach Latino/as both for lack of resources for alternative farming methods and for lack of personnel who even know these farmers exist and who care to take the trouble to communicate with them. And then, of course, there is the overall economic context: even well-established multi-generational white farmers are losing their farms because of the US cheap food policies. Yet for those who succeed, the farm of their own, even on rented land, represents a welcome recreation of “home.”

The exceptions to biodiverse small-scale enterprises are a few large orchards in the Washington State fruit belt where farmworkers worked their way up on white-owned farms that lacked heirs who wanted to take over. Rather than let their farms be swallowed up by larger neighbors or sold for development, the white farmers have sold on favorable terms to trusted Latino field managers allowing them to become owners of significant properties. Often the white farmers continue to live in the farm house while the new Latino owner has to commute to the farm.

Minkoff-Zern tells the story of Jesus Limon who grows hundreds of acres of tree fruit, a portion of it certified organic. Unlike most of the white orchardists, Jesus, although over 60, continues to work in the fields side by side with his many employees. His son Jose, who has become a Farm Service Agency (FSA) employee, gave Minkoff-Zern a tour of several other orchards owned by former farm workers. They told her that they rely a lot on family labor, but still sell through the conventional packing houses and would like to gain more acreage. The other significant monocrop is strawberries: 65% of California’s strawberry farmers are of Mexican descent and 25% started as field workers and worked their way up. (p. 131)

Over and over, Minkoff-Zern hears from the Latino/a farmers that farming is not just a commercial, money making venture, but a way of life. They choose to farm, rather than entering some other kind of business, because farming is what they know, what they love to do and the heritage they want to pass on to their children. The conventional industrial model pursued by so many US farmers is not attractive to them. In any case, they cannot afford large acreage or equipment, nor would they have easy access to wholesale markets or production contracts. As for many Anglo organic farmers, the standard technical advice on fertilizers and chemicals is of no use to them. Taking it farther, the standardization imposed by commercial markets is abhorrent to them, including the potential pressures to grow things a certain way that makes some of them shy away from government programs and even organic standards and the certification process.

As Minkoff-Zern points out, our movement for a more sustainable agriculture has everything to gain by including these new American farmers. Welcoming a few Latino/a farmers to farmers markets we might sell at should be an added attraction. Having bi-lingual staff with Mexican community roots would help make them feel more welcome, of course. We can start by translating our materials and websites into Spanish and providing Spanish interpreters at our conferences. Farmers who sell direct are much less likely to seek certification than those who sell to markets that require the label, but they might still be interested in the standards. In thinking about writing this review I discovered that the National Organic Program has some documents in Spanish though you have to hunt for them, and when you click on the standards themselves, what comes up is an English version: https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/NOPDocumentsandResourcesAvailableinSpanish.pdf

According to Minkoff-Zern, like many of us white family-scale farmers, the Latino/a farmers feel under pressure to conform to conventional farming, to use more industrial practices, to scale up. These are our brothers and sisters and our movement for family-scale farms is international in scope. There is much we can learn from people who have overcome so many odds in order to farm in this country.