As farming changes, so do farm owners


Minorities: Blue-collar immigrants are trading city life for rural fields as they return to roles that they once held in their homelands.

August 10, 2004|By Andrew Martin | Andrew Martin,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

COVERT, Mich. - Armando Arellano had never heard of a blueberry when he jumped into the trunk of a car 21 years ago, and was crammed between two strangers for a successful - and illegal - drive across the border from Mexico into the United States.

Nor did he give blueberries much thought during the next two decades, whipping up cakes, pies and an occasional blueberry muffin as a baker in California and more recently, in Elk Grove Village, Ill.

But on a recent afternoon, standing amid cartons of blueberries, pinatas and Mexican candies in the newly refurbished Arellanos Fresh Fruit Market, Arellano credited blueberries for making possible an unexpected and happy twist in his life.

In southwest Michigan, where Mexicans were long relegated to migrant work, Arellano is among a growing number of Mexican immigrants who are buying the blueberry farms that thrive in the region.

Like Arellano, many of the Mexican farmers spent years working blue-collar jobs in the Chicago area before moving to southwest Michigan, jumping at the chance to return to a more rural lifestyle.

"I made a big change from a baker to a farmer," said Arellano, 36, who was planning to open a bakery in Michigan when he stumbled upon the blueberry farm and fruit stand. "When I saw [the blueberries], and I saw that they were making money from them, I had to go for it."

It's a trend that's not just confined to Michigan blueberry farms.

In its most recent Census of Agriculture, for 2002, the Department of Agriculture reported a surge in the number of minority farmers in the United States, particularly among Hispanics. The census is taken every five years.

The number of Hispanics who are principal operators of their farms increased by 51 percent from 1997 to 2002, from 33,450 to 50,592, the census found. A principal operator, as defined by the USDA, is the person at the farm responsible for day-to-day operations.

There was also a 20 percent increase in the number of American Indian and Alaska natives who are principal operators of farms, to 15,494, and a 9 percent increase in the number of African-American farmers, to 29,090. The number of Asian and Hawaiian farmers declined 3 percent, to 9,358.

While the number of minority-owned farms remains relatively small - 97 percent of the principal operators of farms are white - their increasing numbers represent a bright spot on what is mostly a gloomy picture of the American family farm.

Driven by new technology that makes farming more efficient and increased competition from global markets, American farms are getting bigger and scarcer. The remaining farmers, meanwhile, are getting older, with an average age of 55 in the 2002 census.

But while market forces have put pressure on operators of small- and medium-size farms trying to compete with large-scale farms, they also have offered opportunities for farmers willing to find niche markets or accept wages that many white farmers no longer consider acceptable.

"Two things are happening," said William Kandel, a sociologist for the USDA's Economic Research Service. "This industry is being dominated by large farms. And the other thing is, immigrants are moving into areas that native-born workers are leaving and consider unprofitable."

That dynamic is playing out in Washington state, where intense competition from China has squeezed longtime apple growers. Hispanic farmers are increasingly buying orchards near Yakima from white farmers who are retiring or getting out of the business.

"While it's not been a good thing for white farmers because they are not making the millions they used to, it's been a good thing for Latino farmers," said Luz Bazan Gutierrez, president of Rural Community Development Resources, a nonprofit agency in Yakima.

Other immigrant farmers have found niche markets by focusing on produce that caters to growing immigrant populations, said August "Gus" Schumacher, a consultant for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation on immigrant and refugee farming and a former undersecretary at the USDA.

For instance, West African farmers are growing njamma-njamma, ancthea, huckleberry greens and other vegetables from their homeland in Maryland fields and selling them at farmers markets in Washington, he said. In central Massachusetts, Cambodian and Hmong farmers are growing native crops such as komatsuna, pea tendrils and daikon for Asian communities in Boston.

Though immigrants have traditionally gravitated toward cities, many are now moving to the country, because they lived in rural areas before moving to the United States and because of job opportunities.

Hmong refugees, for instance, from along the Laotian-Vietnamese border are leaving manufacturing jobs in California and Minnesota and buying poultry farms in Arkansas and Missouri.

"The refugee farmers don't want to work in factories," Schumacher said. "They want to live like they did in Vietnam."

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