Jose Montenegro grew up on a small farm in Durango, Mexico—a farm his father still owns and manages. Today Montenegro is director of the Rural Development Center in Salinas, California, providing training for migrant farm workers to become independent farmers. "There is this passion, this love, that Mexican people have for the land that goes way back to our ancestors," Montenegro says. "When I came [to the United States] I worked in factories, but I was looking for a commitment, not just a job."
The Rural Development Center opened its doors in the 1980s to address an unrecognized statistic. While California’s "traditional" family farms—run by the descendents of European immigrants—were on the decline, between 1992 and 1997 there was a 32 percent increase in Latino farm owners.
The same statistics are turning up around the country for "nontraditional" and "new entry" farmers. Nearly 9 percent of U.S. farms are owned and operated by women. The percentage of black-owned farms is also on the rise, due in part to the 1997 discrimination suit black farmers won against the USDA. There is a nationwide increase in small farms owned or operated by American Indians, Latinos, and Asians.
The USDA’s National Commission on Small Farms is changing the climate for small farm owners. The Ag Department’s Civil Rights Action Team recommended formation of the commission after it was recognized that, in addition to racial discrimination, government policies and practices have discriminated against small farm operators.
The Rural Development Center acknowledges that part of its work is to act as "cultural translators" for policies like those promoted by the Small Farm commission. "Often federal and state agricultural agencies only work with land grant universities or county extension programs," says Montenegro. "These agencies have not traditionally been able to provide adequate help for minority farmers." Involving cultural translator organizations early in the process of program development is one way to strengthen minority farmers.
An example of cultural translation is the definition of "family farming" itself. Federal and state farm training programs tend to work with one person as the "farm owner." However, the Rural Development Center found that migrant farm workers were interested in moving to farm management and ownership primarily to educate and stabilize the whole family. RDC now structures its programs for families to attend, and everyone receives training. "This place is always filled with children," says Montenegro.
In the early 1990s, the center also made a transition from teaching conventional farming methods to organic farming. This too came from the desire of Latino farm families to work together. "Most of the men were migrant workers from Mexico," Montenegro says. "They knew what chemicals could do to you. They didn’t want to expose their wives and kids to the chemicals we used on our farms."
The shift to organic farming has also helped RDC address some of the broader needs of the Salinas community. In both rural areas and inner-city neighborhoods, many low-income families do not have access to healthy, nutritional food. There is no "food security." RDC established an organic farmer’s market in conjunction with the county nutritional program for Women, Infants, and Children. WIC recipients get coupons that can be redeemed at the farmer’s market. This trend is growing nationally. In 1998, 9,589 farmers and 1,532 farmer’s markets were authorized to accept nutritional program coupons.
While many Americans reap the benefits of record economic growth, rural America faces a fiscal dust bowl. Vertical integration, mergers and acquisitions, the death of the main street market, erosion of health care and education, extraordinarily low crop and livestock prices, and lack of market competition all threaten to eradicate America’s best food source.
Changes in current policy are needed to allow rural America to join in the rising economic tide. On a national scale, candidates should be measured by their commitment to small farms, sustainable agriculture, and food security. At home, we could see more "local grown" days in soup kitchens, school cafeterias, or office lunch rooms. Most regional Department of Agriculture offices offer a directory of small farms that sell directly to the consumer. Pick up a copy, pack the dog and kids in the car, and take to the back roads on a Sunday afternoon. You might be surprised at who owns the local farms.
ROSE MARIE BERGER is an assistant editor of Sojourners. The USDA’s National Commission on Small Farms report can be found at www.reeusda.gov/agsys/smallfarm/report.htm. Information on WIC’s farmer’s market nutritional programs is at www.fns.usda.gov/wic/content/farmers/farm.htm.