Apr 7, 2007
Women, Minorities Continue to Take Over on the Farm

The changing face of farming belongs to women and minorities.

According to the USDA NASS Census of Agriculture, the number of women principal farm operators grew 12.6 percent from 1997 to 2002. The number of minority principal farm operators also grew significantly during that time, the most notable being a 50.8 percent increase in principal operators of Spanish, Hispanic or Latino origin. And Experts expect these trends to continue.

Women are one of the fastest-growing groups in agriculture, said Mary Peabody, of the University of Vermont (UVM). Peabody ran a u-pick strawberry and livestock farm in Vermont and now directs UVM’s Women’s Agricultural Network (WAgN) and serves as an Extension specialist in community resources and economic development.

WAgN provides education and technical assistance to individuals starting or enhancing farms and agriculture-related businesses with the goal of increasing the number of women owning or operating profitable farms and agriculture-related businesses.

“I think the increase of women in farming is the beginning of a trend that will last for along time to come,” she said.

According to the USDA NASS census, the United States had 236,269 women principal operators in 2002, up from 209,784 in 1997.

Peabody listed three reasons for the increase in women growers: 1) a surge of young women graduating with degrees in agriculture who will use their degrees to start their own businesses, 2) women live longer than men and are inheriting farms from their husbands and 3) this generation of women have grown up in the work force; some women decide to invest in themselves and start second careers as farmers.

April Harrington, of Lexington, Okla., started a farm as a second career.

She once worked in the fashion industry but left because of health problems. She started the USDA-certified organic Earth Elements Farm in 1998.

“I became interested in growing when I was sick,” she said. “I enjoy the switch. It’s a completely different way of life than working for a corporation.”

Harrington grows medicinal and culinary herbs and 15 varieties of produce, including cherry tomatoes and okra, on her five-acre farm.

Harrington learned about farming by spending “a lot of time talking to older people about how they grew up.”

From her crop, she makes salves, a dry skin and wrinkle ointment, a sore muscle rub, tooth powder, deodorant and lip balm. She has a commercial kitchen where she cans soup and sauces and just added a bakery for wholesome breads.

She sells her products at the year-round Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City Farmers’ Market.
Harrington called the switch from fashion to farming “a good move.”

“Farming is the hardest I’ve ever worked, but it’s the most rewarding,” she said.

Harrington is the sole owner of Earth Elements, but Peabody said many women co-own and operate farms. Peabody said about 75 percent of her 1,200 WAgN members farm in partnership with someone else.

“Sometimes this is a husband or partner,” Peabody said. “But it is also getting to be more common that the operating team are mother/daughter, or sisters, or two to three friends that share their combined resources to create a business.”

Eva Dunn operates Shaker Woods Farm and the Shaker Woods Farm Bed & Breakfast with her husband, Jack Potter. Dunn started the Sanbornton, N.H., farm in 1994 after retiring from the Air Force.
“No matter where I lived while in the Air Force, I always had a garden,” she said. “I’ve always had farming in my blood.”

Dunn grows fruits, vegetables and herbs and raises dairy goats on five and a half acres. She makes value-added products such as goat milk soap. Dunn and Potter sell their products at two area farmers’ markets.

Dunn called Shaker Woods Farm her “dream farm.” She enjoys farming and being a part of the changing face of agriculture.

Juan Marinez, the assistant director for outreach with Michigan State University (MSU) Extension, said Hispanics are another group that is changing the face of agriculture. Marinez also serves as the Julian Samora Research Institute liaison to Michigan’s Latino communities.

“Hispanics are becoming the new entrepreneur farmers of the future,” he said.

Marinez and Dr. Victor Garcia, from the University of Indiana at Pennsylvania, have been researching the growth of Hispanic farmers in Michigan since 1999. The data Marinez and Garcia have compiled revealed three scenarios that result in the rise of Hispanic farmers in Michigan. Similar scenarios might be happening across the country.

The first scenario involves Mexican Americans who have worked for producers for years. These immigrants came to the United States to work in agriculture and brought their families with them, Marinez said. Over time, a relationship grew between the Mexican American workers and farm operators, and information about running the farm was shared.

“The owner’s children were educated and had no interest in taking over the farm, so many of these farmers approached their employees to sell the farm,” Marinez said.

The farmer would make a deal with the Mexican American employee, selling only minimal acreage at first, Marinez said. Then, over a period of time, the original farmer helped the Mexican American farmer transition into the new role and eventually sold the remaining acreage to him.

A second scenario has Hispanic workers marrying into the role of farm operator.

Farmers were telling their sons to leave the farm and follow their own career paths, but the daughters remained at the farm or took jobs nearby to stay close to the family, Marinez said. The daughters were normally managing farm operations and ended up marrying the Hispanic foreman. When the father retired, the couple took over the farm.

The third scenario involves former farm workers from Mexico who went to big cities, such as Chicago, with the intent to make money and return home, Marinez said. But then the male would marry someone from his village, and the couple decided they could make more money by working together in a big city. Then children came along, and they realized a big city is not where they wanted to raise a family. So, they built relationships with older farmers in more rural areas.

Marinez said these older farmers tended to be multigenerational black growers whose kids didn’t want to return to the farm. They normally had smaller farms – between 10 acres to 20 acres – that were within economic reach of Mexican American workers.

In the Midwest, Marinez said many former farm workers from Mexico worked in Chicago, and once they had families, moved to Michigan, a large group settling in Van Buren County.

Farmer Armando Arellano is an example of this third scenario. He operates Arellano’s Fruit Market in Southwest Michigan’s Van Buren County.

Arellano grew up on a small farm in Mexico and came to the United States with the intention to make money and return home. He worked in a bakery for 11 years in Los Angeles and then moved to Chicago with his brother. He worked in a bakery in Chicago for nine years and saved his money to buy his own bakery in Michigan. At that time he had a wife and two kids.

Arellano talked to a banker in Michigan to get a loan to open his own bakery, but the banker convinced him to go into farming instead. Arellano got a loan and bought a farm in Covert from an older man who didn’t have kids to take over.

“I discovered this is what I was looking for all my life,” Arellano said. “I’m living my dream.”

He grows fruits and vegetables – including apples, peaches, pears, blueberries, cherries, grapes, plums, nectarines, peppers and tomatoes – on 50 acres of his 60-acre property. He sells to markets in Chicago, grocery stores in Michigan and his Empire apples go to McDonald’s to be used as Apple Dippers. He also has a fruit stand in front of his house.

But Marinez said Arellano was fortunate to get a loan from the bank. He said a majority of Hispanic farmers do not qualify for loans because they lack credit histories.

“If Mexicans had access to loans, you would see more Armandos,” Marinez said. “Many Mexicans have spent a lot of time trying to be invisible. Some come here undocumented, and they spend half the time hiding.”

Marinez said Hispanics need to be visible if they want a loan and build credit so bankers are sure they can pay back the loans.

Arellano said Mexican Americans like himself just need a little help getting started.

“We just need a little kick, and we will be on our own way,” he said. “But we need to find the right people to help us.”

Hispanics are the fastest growing minority farming population in the United States, increasing 50.8 percent from 1997 to 2002, according to the USDA NASS census. About 50,443 principal farm operators were of Spanish, Hispanic or Latino origin in 2002 compared to 33,450 in 1997. Marinez said those number might be higher because many Hispanic farmers weren’t counted in the censuses because they’re not enrolled in agriculture programs.

Other minority groups that are a part of this change include black, Native American or Alaska native, Asian, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander.

According to the USDA NASS census, black principal farm operators increased 8.8 percent, or to 29,145, from 1997 to 2002. The USDA NASS collected data on about 20 percent more Native American or Alaska native principal operators in 2002, reporting 15,417. The number of Asian principal operators went down from 9,620 in 1997 to 8,390 in 2002. The Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander group, which was tabulated with the Asian group in 1997, reported 970 principal operators in 2002.
About 7,913 principal farm operators reported being of more than one race in 2002. In 1997, about 12,276 principal farm operators reported being a race not listed.

The census reported 2.13 million total principal farm operators in 2002, down from 2.2 million in 1997.

For more information, visit the following Web sites:
The Julian Samora Research Institute www.jsri.msu.edu
UVM’s WAgN www.uvm.edu/~wagn
Shaker Woods Farm http://shakerwoodsfarm.com
Earth Elements Farm www.earthelements.net

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