When asked what they want to be when they grow up, many little boys say that they want to be farmers. But when those small men become full-grown ones, a career in agriculture is often far from their minds.
That’s precisely the problem facing Minnesota. Those who own the state’s 69,000 farms are aging — averaging 56.6 years old — and many of their children aren’t interested in continuing the family business.
At the same time, more Latino immigrants than ever before are flocking to the state, and many of them would love to own their own farms, but they lack the necessary capital to purchase land.
It’s precisely these two demographic trends that inspired Ramon Leon, the CEO of the Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC) in Minneapolis, to find a way to help low-wage Latino workers become farmers.
Leon has experience in transforming the lives of low-wage immigrants. According to Tom Meersman of the Star Tribune, Leon’s organization has already helped many people previously employed as dishwashers and drivers become business owners. And three years ago, the LEDC established a training course for prospective farmers, provided them with loans, and set up Latino farming cooperatives, such as the Agua Gorda co-op (named after the Mexican town that many meatpacking workers in Long Prairie, Minnesota come from).
“There are a lot of Latino workers in agriculture that aspire to be farm owners if they had a chance,” John Flory of the LEDC told Meersman. “The question is what model can we use to bring them from being low-wage agricultural workers to having an opportunity to be a farm owner.”
The workers in the co-op keep their day jobs while farming rented fields on evenings and weekends. The first year, each member contributed $250 and all together, the group took out a $5,400 loan. They sold $7,000 worth of produce (including peppers, tomatoes, melons, and cucumbers), and eventually were able to expand their acreage and their sales to $40,000 last year. Their main focus? Developing connections in the community so that they can sell all of the produce they grow.
Many of the immigrants find that as their work roots them to the Minnesota soil, long-time residents are becoming more accepting of them. “When you go to communities the people start seeing you there working so hard, and they give you some respect,” Jaime Villalaz, business development specialist for the LEDC told Meersman. “They start thinking of us as good people.”