Farm Workers to Farm Owners

About

Where do racial justice and food justice meet? Perhaps at the point where long time farmworkers are able to buy their own land. In the United States today, 83 percent of farmworkers are Latinx but Latinx people own only three percent of the farms. Latinx farmers bring a wealth of knowledge to the US food system in terms of fresh produce, healthy techniques and a cooperative management style born out of years working as laborers — but they face unique challenges accessing the resources and aid they need to buy their land. As a generation of white family farmers ages out of the business of farming, a rising cohort of Latinx workers stands ready to take up the slack. In this episode, Laura receives a virtual tour of one organic farm from its intrepid owners and speaks with Dr. Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern about her book “The New American Farmer.” She also hears from veteran farm labor organizer and Dolores Huerta, about how helping Latinx farmers thrive would be good for eaters and the planet. 

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“The country needs more farmers, needs more food producers. 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.”
— Juan Farias, Farm Owner, Farias Farms

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You can watch this episode on your local WORLD channel at 11:30 am ET on Sunday, December 13, or on your local PBS station.
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Click here to watch online on YouTube. The episode will be made available at 11:30 am ET on Sunday, December 13.

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Transcript

– The country needs more farmers, it needs more food producers to make it easier for a group of people to get into the business. They wanna be there, they wanna do that hard work.

– Is food supposed to be just a deal to make profits on? We should think of food as nutrition, we should think of food as sustaining life.

– How do we make it to where 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.

– Still coming up on “The Laura Flanders Show,” the place where the people will say it can’t be done take a backseat to the people who are doing it. Farming is essential. From verdant valleys to golden plains to orchards and community gardens, agriculture feeds us all and provides the food for America’s $1 trillion food industry, but COVID-19 has laid bare a contradiction. Though farming is essential, farm workers are often treated as if they’re dispensable. Their labor is considered unskilled, their wages are generally low, and their opportunities for growth until now have been few. Nevertheless, they’ve shown up for work every day of this pandemic. Today on “The Laura Flanders Show,” we explore a new movement in U.S. agriculture that is helping farm workers become the owners of their own farms. We speak with brothers Francisco and Juan Farias and Rigoberto Bucio, three farmers who’ve pursued that path. We’ll learn about two incubator programs supporting their movement, one in Washington, another in California. And then from professor Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern about why this movement, and this moment, is good for everyone. Finally, legendary agricultural labor activist Dolores Huerta on her vision for how U.S. ag might emerge from this pandemic more just, more equitable, and more tasty. Has farming been a long time in your family, Francisco? 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?

– 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, and they have a CSA so they purchase from the farmers that farm from them 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’re renting. But 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 gonna lose a lot of money.

– Francisco and Juan Farias are not alone. There’s a racial and generational shift happening in U.S. farms. In her book, “The New American Farmer: Immigration, Race, and the Struggle for Sustainability,” Professor Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern argues that immigrant farm workers have for far too long been rendered invisible in government documents, universities, and the sustainable food movement.

– 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 farmers, right? Even if they don’t own their own businesses, they are farmers.

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

– 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 gonna 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.

– How has it changed?

– There wasn’t this 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 quote unquote American dream, as problematic as we know it is. A lot of farm workers were trying to move in that direction.

– 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?”

– So what we have is a real generational shift going on right now for a very good reason. The children of what the USDA calls traditional farmers, which is like, as you said, the white U.S. born farmers, they don’t wanna take on the family farm because it’s economically just such a, it’s such 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 gonna take over that farms. And either they consolidate and they sell out to the next neighbor farmer who 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 a lot of the labor, or 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. 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. 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.

– Rigoberto Bucio made the leap from farm worker to farm owner with support and training from ALBA, an innovative organic agricultural organization in California’s Salinas Valley. So describe a little bit about what your life was like when you were a worker, before you became a farmer owner. What was the most difficult part? Was it learning the skills, the business acumen? What was the challenge? What do you think your generation of farmers brings to agriculture here in the United States and to the food system? 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, Farmlink and others that you describe, but on the other are some fairly serious and high structural obstacles.

– 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 just being able to start a business, right, which is related to the history of discrimination that they have 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.

– 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 Washington Carver are all 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?

– 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 farmer’s rights and rights to the land, which have such a strong history. I have not seen the same thing in 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. That said, I think that that is shifting, but what I have 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 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, and it’s something I wish I had asked more about, but 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. So while 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.

– 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 U.S.?

– 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 gonna think you’re not able to because how are you gonna communicate with other people? And the other one is not knowing where to find resources, not knowing how to apply for different grants, not knowing how to even get a business license or how to use technology. All those types of things are things that we don’t think about, but they are serious barriers to starting a farm business.

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

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

– You think we’d have tastier food? Anything to say to other people, perhaps right now who are workers, about whether it’s worth it to try to become an owner? Agriculture’s always been a site of struggle for civil rights, economic, and environmental justice. For more than 50 years, Dolores Huerta has been in that fight. She’s been a leading activist and negotiator for farm workers in California and across the nation. I spoke with her to understand this new movement in this moment in the context of agricultural labor history and to find inspiration in her vision for our future. When you were coming up in the farm worker’s movement, there was the Black Power movement, there was the Chicano movement, there was the beginning of the sort of ecofeminist movement, there was Rachel Carson talking about ecology and ecosystems. We have uprisings in these times around white supremacy, patriarchy, police impunity, you name it. How are you seeing the struggle of farm workers in relation to these movements of these times?

– When you talk to growers, like I did many years when I was negotiating, they always talk about the deal. We’re gonna make a deal on this, we’re gonna make a deal on that. And this is the deal, this is the deal on the peaches, on the tomatoes, on the lettuce. And I used to think to myself, this is not a deal. This is providing food for people that they need to stay healthy, to stay alive. Why do you refer to this as a deal? So it’s not about a deal which equals profits. We should think of food as nutrition, we should think of food as medicine, we should think of food as sustaining life, and to make sure too that that life is healthy, and that we are not poisoning people when we are feeding them.

– Do you see a transition happening? Do you see this effort being a wave of the future, and what difference do you think that transition of a whole generation of farm workers to farm owners might make?

– Oh, I think it would make a great amount of difference, because I think farm workers, they do care about their work. They see themselves as professionals. A lot of people don’t think of them in that way. They think, well, it’s a re-entry, or it’s a first entry level work into the work system, but they don’t see themselves that way. They care about the crops. But on the other hand, I think the one way that more farm workers can become farmers is that they have to be able to get the financing. Ultimately, the only thing that’s really gonna help farm workers is of course for them to get into a union to be able to get better wages and better conditions. And I think the healthcare system has something to do with this. Healthcare should be provided by our government, and not by the employer.

– You’ve fought around worker rights to organize, you’ve fought around wages, you’ve fought around healthcare, and around housing, and you’ve scored some victories in each of those departments in your life. It seems like we need to almost think bigger, or is it just a matter of more connections?

– I totally agree with you. I think that we have too many of us, including myself, we always think of these incremental changes that we have to fight for and that we have to achieve. And I think now we have to stand back and look at the big picture. There is so much in our economic system that is not working, and we’ve seen it right now, that it’s collapsing before our very eyes, and so that we have to start thinking very, very differently about the way everything, especially our food supply, the distribution of our food. Is food supposed to be just a deal to make profits on, or is food supposed to be something that everybody is essential to life, and how can we provide that food in a sustainable way that everybody can afford it? And again, one of the things in California and where I’m at, and we’re the fifth largest economy in the world, and again, we have here in the Central Valley where people make billions of dollars in profits on food, and yet we have so many children and families that live in poverty, and how can that be? So that really speaks to the fact that we have to have radical, radical changes.

– Well, you know a lot about building power. You’ve been part of building a lot of it in your lifetime. What do you think is the story, or do you have a sense of what the story will be that the future, maybe 50 years from now, tells of this moment?

– Well, you know, I’ll just give you a little example, because this was many years ago but my ex-husband, whose name I still carry, Mr. Huerta, he wanted to be a farmer. And he went to go into college, and when he went to the Ag department and told them he wanted to study agriculture, they told him, you could never be a farmer. I think the manifestations that we have seen of all of the young people that are protesting out there, and they have actually speeded up the process you might say, ’cause they have kind of shaken the nation’s conscience. But we need that same kind of energy, that same kind of movement, going toward our economic imbalance. Right now, we’re talking about racism and we’re talking about police misconduct, et cetera, but we know that the inequality that we have in economics also leads back to racism in a great way.

– Replacing exploitative deals with sustainable relationships, seeing farm workers become the next generation of farm owners, and dismantling racism within our agricultural and economic systems is gonna require us to start treating everyone as essential, as valuable as the fruits of their labor. So how about when you sit down to your next meal, remembering the food on our table is a reflection of our economy, our society, our values, and ultimately, our humanity.

– 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? And I think we are in a moment, we could make that shift, right, if the momentum is there, the policymakers are there, because the awareness is there.

– I think this is the beginning of maybe that inspiration about how we really start thinking seriously about our food and our food supply. How can we make it safe? How can anyone that wants to go in farming, that they could actually, actually do it? So I think the opportunities are endless, and I think too, now that people are at home, and they actually have to cook- It reconnects people with food as the nutrition that we need. For more on this episode, and other forward-thinking content, and to tune into our podcast, visit our website at lauraflanders.org, and follow us on social media @TheLFShow.

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