Farmworkers to Farm Owners

 

 

 

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Where do racial justice and food justice meet? Perhaps at the point where Latinx farmworkers are able to buy their own land. In the United States, 83 percent of farmworkers are Latinx but Latinx people own only 3 percent of the farms. This week on The Laura Flanders Show, Latinx farmers discuss what they bring to the US food system in terms of fresh produce, healthy techniques and a cooperative management style born out of years working as laborers in less than sustainable conditions. Laura also speaks with Dr. Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern about her book The New American Farmer and looks at the challenges a new generation of farmers face, how incubator programs help, and why this transition could be good for everybody.

 

For more about food justice, click here to watch or listen to Food Justice is About Everything We Do.

 

 

 

 

Transcript

 

 

Juan Farias:

The country needs more farmers. It needs more food producers. You make it easier for a group of people to get into the business. They want to be there. They want to do the hard work. You make that easy and accessible for them, then you’re going to have a whole new group of people that’s providing jobs, providing food for the community and also contributing to the economy.

Francisco Farias:

Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern:

How do we make it so our whole food chain is stronger, both in terms of the workers that are in it and in terms of the food actually getting from the fields to people’s plates in a healthier and safer way.

Laura Flanders:

It’s all coming up on the Laura Flanders Show. The place where the people who say it can’t be done take a backseat to the people who are doing it. Welcome.

Laura Flanders:

Hi, I’m Laura Flanders. This week on the show, what if farm workers could become farm owners? If the COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything, for many it’s been a fresh appreciation of those who work our farms. But what if those who work them could become those who own them? I speak with Francisco me Juan Farias and Rigoberto Bucio, two who have long labored in the fields about what it’s taken to become owners of their own farms. We hear about an incubator program that helps. One of many that’s out there these days. And speak to author/activist Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern about why helping this transition for a whole new generation of farmers would be good for all of us. Those of us who eat and those who care about our food system.

Francisco Farias:

Laura Flanders:

Has farming been a long time in your family, Francisco?

Francisco Farias:

Laura Flanders:

Viva Farms is an incubator program that’s been getting some media attention recently. It’s one of those that helps farm workers become owners. And in this promotional video, they explain how.

Speaker 4:

Well our mission is to train beginning farmers and support them with land, with infrastructure, with equipment, assistance with markets, and also assistance with capital. Here in Skagit County and across the Northwest and even across the country, agriculture is in jeopardy on some level because farmers’ average age is 58. The question was, well, how do new people that want to become farmers get started? And so there was a group of people that came together here locally and said, well, what’s the biggest barrier? In the beginning, it was, well, land’s the biggest barrier, so let’s solve the land issue. And quickly discovered that it wasn’t just land. It was the rest of what we call the essentials.

Speaker 4:

We have tractors and we have the land and we have the infrastructure that folks can use. So Viva is kind of that. Well, not kind of, it is an incubator where folks can start with the support around them so they can become successful. Maybe their kids will be farmers as well.

Speaker 4:

One of our largest contingents are Latino folks. So we offer all the programs we offer bilingually. And one of our primary missions is to actually help farm workers become farm owners.

Francisco Farias:

.

Speaker 5:

It’s the second year here.

Speaker 6:

Francisco is a farmer leasing land from Viva after going through their program. He only speaks Spanish, so we’re talking to him through his interpreter.

Speaker 5:

Viva taught me different things about managing my business, about organic certification. Also helped him learn how to drive tractors, how to drive the tractor on the highway, in particular. So all kinds of things like that that would have been hard to learn on his own.

Speaker 4:

Approximately 40% of our participants over time have actually been previous farm workers that have now started their own businesses here.

Francisco Farias:

Laura Flanders:

So, Juan, a question for you. You see how difficult it is for lots of farmers to become farm owners. What difference does Viva make? What difference does that program make to farmers like yourselves?

Juan Farias:

I think the benefit of going through a program like Viva is that they do provide that hands on experience. And then they also provide a lot of resources here in the community and they can also help you find buyers. They have a CSA, so they purchase from the farmers, the farm program as well. And then another benefit is also that they start you out with a half acre. They provide everything that you need to get started. Like tractors, you can rent them, water, which is a big one. So they provide the infrastructure and then you just provide the produce. And then if you like it, you can stay with them a little bit longer and you can increase the size of land that you renting. Yeah, it’s a good place to start out, give it a try, see if it’s for you. And if it’s not, you’re not going to lose a lot of money.

Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern:

I actually started my work as an academic in Guatemala. I did work on a permaculture farm down there in my early 20s. And that’s where I first started to be really interested in sustainable agriculture, in the types of farming methods that took advantage of people’s traditional farming ways. And when I came back to the United States to work in farming in California, what I saw was the farmers that I was working with in Guatemala were essentially the same groups of people that were farming, but as workers, in California. And I started to see the commonalities between the farm workers in the US and Mexican and Central American farmers. And essentially the fact that they came with all this agricultural knowledge and background and they’re not just people that are coming to work. They’re not just laboring bodies, but they’re they’re farmers, right. Even if they don’t own their own businesses, they are farmers.

Laura Flanders:

Take me back before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Because if I’m reading your work right, you weren’t under estimating the challenges that contemporary agriculture faces, but you were feeling maybe a little glimmer of hope, of optimism.

Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern:

So when I completed the research for this book, it was early 2016. And as I write about Trump was on the horizon, we knew that he was potentially going to be the Republican candidate, but it was a very different moment in the United States politically, particularly in terms of rural communities and agriculture. And yeah, the book is about somewhat of a community that I think there is a lot of hope for. People that we should be paying attention to, regardless of the moment that we’re in, that are providing a really interesting future for what should be happening in agriculture, I think, in terms of sustainability and social justice.

Laura Flanders:

How has it changed?

Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern:

There wasn’t the sense of fear among the immigrant community and among the farm worker community that there is now. There was the sense that while there were deportations, people living in rural communities didn’t have as intensive a sense of raids coming down. That they would need to be afraid in their workplace in the same way that they are now. That they would be targeted for racial bias the way that they are now. And so I think there was a sense that even if undocumented, that they could use opportunities, they could be out in a marketplace selling, they could be a business owner, they could kind of live this “American dream”. As problematic as we know it is, a lot of farm workers were trying to move in that direction.

Laura Flanders:

Your core point in the book is that who is an American farmer is changing. It’s been disproportionately white men. I think you say a third of them over the age of 65. Something is shifting. What is that shift that’s happening as you’ve documented in The New American Farmer?

Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern:

So what we have is a real generational shift going on right now. For very good reason, the children of what the USDA calls traditional farmers, which is, as you said, the white US born farmers, they don’t want to take on the family farm because it’s economically just such a difficult business to be in. They’re failing more than surviving. And that’s even the mid and large scale farms. So as we see those farmers age out, the question is, who’s going to take over that farms? And there’s kind of either they consolidate and they sell out to the next neighbor farmer, becomes a big farmer or someone else that’s coming in to purchase the land, they go under. Or another thing that we’re starting to see happen is farm workers, people that don’t own the property, don’t own the farm business, but are doing the majority of the labor, at least on fruit and vegetable farms, are coming in and getting access to rented land or in some cases purchasing the businesses from the owners.

Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern:

And I argue that the reason that this is happening is because, as I talked about before, they’re here with so much knowledge around agriculture, right? They’re not just people that are here being told what to do and doing… It’s considered unskilled labor, but it’s incredibly skilled labor. And so they come here with an agricultural background and they’re really in a lot of ways in the best position to be moving into farm ownership positions.

Speaker 8:

California farmer Rigoberto Bucio knows how to grow perfect strawberries. After many years as a farm worker, he’s now in his sixth year as an independent farmer at ALBA, the Agriculture and Land Based Training Association in Salinas. Since the program’s inception in 2002, over 100 graduates have launched their businesses from ALBA’s fields.

Speaker 9:

We work largely with Latino farm workers who don’t have many economic alternatives, don’t have many employment alternatives.

Speaker 10:

Hola, Francisco.

Speaker 9:

Very hard working people who are quite entrepreneurial. They come to our program and get education on how to run a business, on how to do organic farming, and how to keep up with all the regulatory compliance issues that are in California’s competitive agribusiness industry. And over the course of several years, they established their farms here before transitioning off and being independent farmers.

Rigoberto Bucio:

Laura Flanders:

So describe a little bit about what your life was like when you were a worker before you became a farmer owner.

Rigoberto Bucio:

Laura Flanders:

What was the most difficult part? Was it learning the skills, the business acumen? What was the challenge?

Rigoberto Bucio:

Laura Flanders:

What do you think your generation of farmers brings to agriculture here in the United States and to the food system?

Rigoberto Bucio:

Laura Flanders:

You go on to talk about the structural barriers that make it very difficult for many of these farmers to survive. Could you talk about some of those? On the one hand, there are some interesting programs, Farm Link, and others that you describe, but on the other are some fairly serious and high structural obstacles.

Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern:

Absolutely. Well, the first is just capital to invest, right? I mean, farming, depending on the type of farming you’re doing, you have to rent the land, you need some type of machinery, you need trucks to get to market, you need to pay for permits. You just need money to start a business period. So when you’re looking at farm workers that are some of them make as little as $12,000 a year, if they only can work seasonally and they come here with debt. There’s the barrier of just being able to start a business, right? Which is related to the history of discrimination that they’ve experienced. And then once they get here, even if they can start a business, what we’ve seen and has been proven through multiple court cases is that the United States Department of Agriculture has a long history of discrimination of what they title Hispanic, Latino farmers against African American farmers, against female farmers that they’ve admitted to. Right? And the cases that they’ve admitted to are very specific to particular time periods and particular processes. But what that shows us is that there is this history of them not looking at people of color and not looking at women as legitimate farmers and not giving them the same access to loans and grants and just assistance.

Laura Flanders:

We’ve interviewed Shirley Sherrod from Georgia on this program and heard a lot about the movements among black farmers that had to assert themselves to get any justice at the USDA. The names Fannie Lou Hamer and Grover Washington Carver are relatively well known. Is there a comparable movement among Latinx farmers to connect racial justice and social justice with farming justice and the right to the land?

Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern:

You know, it’s an interesting question and it’s one that I thought about a lot while doing this research. And I would say it is not… In comparison to the movement for African American farmers’ rights and rights to the land, which has such a strong history, I have not seen the same thing the Latino/Latinx community. And I think a lot of that comes from the language barriers. A lot of it comes from being a new immigrant population. A lot of it comes from kind of the active movement history being more tied to labor than land access. So I don’t think we have these same figure heads that I can give you examples of. That said, I think that that is shifting. So there are organizations in California, in Florida, that are starting to connect, in particular, connect the farm labor struggle, which has gone through kind of ebbs and flows with success over the past 30 years to the land struggle.

Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern:

So I do think that that’s changing. I do think there’s more intersectional work being done among the new and beginning farmer movement to address structural discrimination and structural racism within their own communities, particularly among the young farming community. But what I found with the immigrant farming community is they were still really sidelined from a lot of mainstream organizing in the United States due to cultural barriers and due to language barriers and due to being so physically isolated as well. And I talked to a lot of farmers about this, and I said, “Well, are you interested in joining an organization or becoming politically active?” And most of them said no. They said, “No, I kind of just want to be a farmer. I just want to do my thing.” And so there’s a lot more to tease apart with that. It’s something I, I wish I had asked more about. I didn’t see a strong desire to be really politically active and I think part of that comes from some of them being undocumented and being part of undocumented communities and the fear in getting politically active. I think there’s a lot of commonality, especially historically, between the African American and immigrant farming communities in terms of the same types of struggles. I think the movement is coalescing in different ways.

Laura Flanders:

The last data that I saw said that 83% of people who labor in the farms are Latinx, Latino, Latina, but Latinx people only own 3% of farms. So if you have that much knowhow and experience and willingness to work, how do you explain how small the number of farms are that are owned by Latinx people in the US?

Francisco Farias:

.

Juan Farias:

I think there’s a few other factors as well that go into it. The language barrier for one is a huge one. If you don’t speak English and you want to go into business and you don’t have anybody that can help you with that, you’re going to think you’re not able to, because how are you going to communicate with other people? That’s one big one. The other one is not knowing where to find resources, that type of thing, and not knowing how to apply for different grants, not knowing how to even get a business license or how to be a use technology. You know, all those types of things are things that we don’t think about, but there are serious barriers to starting a farm business. Because you can be as knowledgeable as you can about this aspect of it, but if you don’t have someone on the back end or if you on the back end don’t have the ability to manage the business, get those invoices out, keep all those organic records, organize all those so those receipts, write out a business plan, your profit and loss statement. All that other stuff that goes on in the back end, that you don’t see.

Juan Farias:

A lot of people only think about farming. You just go to the farm and you plant stuff and then you harvest it and you do that. That’s a lot of hard work. It’s super hard.

Laura Flanders:

Would be a good idea for the USDA and other organizations of US farming to make it easier for farmers like you and your brothers to enter into this business?

Juan Farias:

The country needs more farmers, needs some more food producers. You make it easier for a group of people to get into the business. They want to be there. They want to do the hard work. It’s what they like. They like being outside. And if you make that easy and accessible for them, you’re going to have a whole new group of people that’s providing jobs, providing food for the community, and also contributing to the economy.

Laura Flanders:

Do you think we’d have tastier food?

Francisco Farias:

.

Laura Flanders:

Anything to say to other people, perhaps right now who are workers, about whether it’s worth it to try to become an owner?

Rigoberto Bucio:

Laura Flanders:

What have you found inspiring from what you’ve learned on these farms, and as you’ve talked to these farmers, and what are you thinking about, about their lives right now, as lives for them are also hit by this coronavirus, even as they were inching towards a position of possibility here in this country?

Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern:

If we can see this moment as a turning point to say not only can we not take advantage of those workers that are essential and have always been essential, but also how do we think critically about where we’re sourcing our food and not going back to depending on these very vulnerable food chains. Right? So what does that look like? I think it means multiple things. One of them is immediate immigration reform. Looking at people. And I hate to… I’m not one to say immigration reform should address some people and not others, right, but I do think when we look at anyone we’re calling an essential worker right now. And a large, well, at least within fieldwork and food processing work, we know upwards… Estimates are 80 to 90% of people in those positions are immigrants. And if we are acknowledging that they’re essential, right, and still saying that they could easily be deported at any moment, we need to look at what’s wrong with that system.

Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern:

So I think, right, for one, we need massive immigration reform that recognizes the importance of the food system in that reform and gives amnesty to those workers and creates a real system for how we’ve become dependent upon vulnerable workers. Right. How did we even get here is something people need to be thinking much more seriously about. And then as far as the food chain, I mean, I do think this is an opportunity for small scale and medium sized regional food systems to be strengthened. And, again, that can be done through support from the USDA, support through our federal and state governments, to make sure that these are the farmers we’re subsidizing. These are the farmers that are getting supports we need. The farmer’s markets become places that everyone can afford to go and easily access. They can’t be just elitist places for consumers, they need to be more accessible. And how do we make it so our whole food chain is stronger, both in terms of the workers that are in it and in terms of the food actually getting from the field to people’s plates in a healthier and safer way? And I think we are in a moment we could make that shift. Right. If the momentum is there, if the policy makers are there, because the awareness is there.

Rigoberto Bucio:

 

 

 

 

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