Bridging the Opportunity Divide

For New Americans, These Programs Help Them Live Off the Land

October 22, 2014
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For New Americans, These Programs Help Them Live Off the Land
Statistics show that agriculture is a growing field among immigrants to the U.S. John Moore/Getty Images
The face of agriculture in the Midwest is changing.

The classic image of the American immigrant involves a family arriving in a big city like New York or San Francisco and working to make their way in that urban environment. But statistics show that more immigrants to the U.S. head to the Midwest where they take jobs in agriculture.

In fact, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, between 2007 and 2011, 2.1 million foreign-born people lived in rural areas. Since 1990, the Midwest and South’s Latino population has grown significantly — particularly in towns with meat packing plants. Now, more children of immigrants are seeing farming as an attractive career path.

In a two-part series for Iowa Public Radio, Amy Mayer explored this shift. Five years ago, the Boelens sold their farm in the Netherlands because they weren’t able to expand it enough to sustain it and moved to Iowa. The family of seven came to America through a program called the Startup Visa for foreign entrepreneurs who plan to invest $100,000 or more in a U.S. business. Through it, five American jobs must be created in order for the visa to be renewed. Two of the Boelen’s five children tell Mayer that one day they plan to farm the family’s land.

A more typical immigrant farmer story is that of Pacifique Simon, who was born in Congo to Burundian parents in refugee camps. The Simons received asylum in the U.S. and came to Des Moines. They didn’t have enough money to buy a farm and make use of their agricultural experience, but a program sponsored by some Iowa churches has provided them with land to work.

Simon is majoring in agricultural systems technology at Iowa State University in the hopes of making farming his life. “I want to learn some skills here and then go teach people back there so they can produce enough food to feed their own family,” Simon tells Mayer.

The largest immigrant group in the Midwest, however, are Latinos, especially Mexican-Americans. Mayer found that some of the children of Mexican immigrants are turned off by the prospect of a career in agriculture since they’ve seen their parents worn down by backbreaking labor in meatpacking plants in exchange for low wages.

Still, with so many second-generation Latinos in the Midwest, some of them are turning to farming for a career. Mayer spoke to Brian Castro, who graduated from Iowa State this year. His parents are immigrants from Mexico, and he plans to make a career out of providing better agricultural jobs for Latinos.

“There’s a huge misrepresentation of the Latino population,” Castro says, “of Latino workers in the decision-making area for agriculture, even though they are the number one, the main population of the workers.”

Melissa Garcia, whose parents also immigrated from Mexico, earned a full-ride to Iowa State and plans to study to be a large animal veterinarian. “There’s a career and a job out there waiting for me,” she tells Mayer. “And then hopefully one day I’ll reach my goal of having my own farm.”

MORE: From Field Hands to Farmers: This Program Helps Latino Immigrants Become Land Owners

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post referred to Iowa State University by its old name, Iowa State College of Agriculture, and stated that Brian Castro and Melissa Garcia are cousins–they are not.

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