The next generation of farmers in the United States might not be whom we expect. If the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the importance of farmworkers in our food system, the story left out a rising class of farmworkers who now own their craft with the help of incubator programs across the country. Latinx farm owners stand at the intersection of racial justice and food justice and offer new hope in the future of sustainable farming in the U.S.
Latinx farmers bring a wealth of historic knowledge to our food system in terms of organic farming and a cooperative management style, yet they only make up 3 percent of farm owners while 83 percent of field laborers are Latinx. Dr. Laura-Anne Minkoff Zern explores these disparities in her new book, The New American Farmer: Immigration, Race and the Struggle for Sustainability. She joins Rigoberto Bucio, Francisco Farias and Juan Farias — all farmworkers who made the leap to farm ownership, who provide insight into what it takes owners of their own enterprise. We also hear from longtime organizer and activist Dolores Huerta to uncover the distinctive challenges these owners have in navigating a system of far too often racist barriers and exclusionary measures.
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. What is that shift that’s happening as you’ve documented in The New American Farmer?
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Dr. 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, U.S.-born farmers — they don’t want to take on the family farm, because it’s economically 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 those farms? … Another thing that we’re starting to see happen is farmworkers — 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.
And I argue that the reason that this is happening is because … they’re here with so much knowledge around agriculture. 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 farmworker to farm owner with support and training from the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), an innovative organic agriculture organization in California’s Salinas Valley. Rigoberto, what was the most difficult part? Was it learning the skills, the business acumen? What was the challenge?
Rigoberto Bucio: I think all of them, but the biggest challenge is that you start with nothing and you have to create everything from the tools, and you don’t know how to get some things or others. Really, everything! And the biggest challenge for me and for us small farmers is money. I’ve been out of ALBA for four years; I’m really realizing what it’s really like to be a farmer.
What do you think your generation of farmers brings to agriculture here in the United States and to the food system?
Rigoberto Bucio: Food, sustenance, something that can be generating jobs. And the satisfaction of giving; serving food not just to a lot of households but to as many as possible within my capacity and the capacity of every small farmer. So, if there were many people who think like this, who love this about small farmers, it would be a perfect world. But the reality is that it’s not.
Laura-Anne, 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?
Dr. Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern: Well, the first is just capital to invest. 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, 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, 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.
The names Fannie Lou Hamer and George 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?
Dr. Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern: It’s an interesting question. And it’s one that I thought about a lot while doing this research. And I would say, in comparison to the movement for African American farmers rights and rights to land, which has such a strong history, I have not seen the same thing in the 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 the active movement history being more tied to labor than land access. That said, I think that that is shifting. 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 I talked to a lot of farmers about this and I said, “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.”
The last data that I saw said that 83 percent of people who labor in the farms are Latinx/Latino/Latina, but Latinx people only own 3 percent of farms. So if you have that much know-how 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.?
Francisco Farias: As Latinos, we’re not used to thinking about growth and owning our own businesses. We think more about working and earning a paycheck so that we can support ourselves. Starting a business we all know is a big responsibility, but you need to save up first and have money to open your own business because everything is expensive.
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? 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 there 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?
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. 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.
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: It’s tremendously satisfying when you start to work, when you see that your product is ready, when it will be eaten. It opens the doors to a lot. Yes, I would tell them to try it and if it doesn’t work, they will know that they tried, and if they don’t try, they will never know if it would have worked. This helped me a lot when I started this. I was very shy, very quiet. I still am. I’m very nervous! But if I hadn’t started this, I wouldn’t be talking to you as I am now.
Dolores, when you were coming up in the farmworkers’ movement, there was the Black Power movement, there was the Chicano movement. There was the beginning of the sort of eco-feminist movement — how are you seeing the struggle of farmworkers in relation to these movements of these times?
Dolores Huerta: When you talk to growers, like I did many years when I was negotiating, they always talk about the deal. We’re going to make a deal on this. We’re going to 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 take 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 farmworkers to farm owners might make?
Dolores Huerta: Well, I think it would make a great amount of difference because I think farmworkers, 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 first-entry level into the work system,” but they don’t see themselves that way. They care about the crops. But, on the other hand, the one way that more farmworkers can become farmers is they have to be able to get the financing. Ultimately, the only thing that’s really going to help farmworkers is, of course, for them to get into a union to be able to get better wages and better conditions. And I think the health care system has something to do with this. Health care should be provided by our government and not by the employer.
Replacing exploitative deals with sustainable relationships, seeing far more workers become the next generation of farm owners, and dismantling racism within our agricultural and economic systems is going to require us to start treating everyone as essential, as valuable as the fruits of their labor.
Dolores Huerta: 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? … 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.
Rigoberto Bucio: I think I see the convenience of the country to use that phrase in a diplomatic way, that “we’re essential,” but before this, what were we? They probably didn’t ever think about us. Today, fortunately, they do think about us. Hopefully they will continue to think about us.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.