Corvallis Gazette-Times
October 10, 2005

From field to farm

By LAURA WIDES
Associated Press writer

Study: Number of Hispanic farmers on the rise in the U.S.

LOS ANGELES Henry Vega's father emigrated from Mexico during World War II to harvest sugar beets. Today, Vega runs the family's 65-acre lemon orchard, manages other land and serves as president of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County.

He's among the increasing number of Hispanic farmers in the country.

Between 1997 and 2002, Hispanic-run farms jumped by more than 50 percent, from 33,000 to 51,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"My father, he did everything from picking, being a foreman and supervisor, and then eventually buying a ranch,'' Vega said. "It seems like that's often the way it works for the farmworkers.''

Hispanics still represent only a small percentage of U.S. farmers, owning just more than 2 percent of all farms. But that number could grow as workers try to expand their opportunities.

The evolution from farmworker to farm operator is occurring as farmers in general find it increasingly tough to eke out a living.

Many white families are leaving the industry and selling their ranches to workers rather than passing them on to sons or daughters who prefer working 9-to-5 rather than dawn-to-dusk.

"The main factor is that farming is such a precarious operation. A lot of American-born people are just not willing to take on the risk,'' said Ron Strochlic, interim executive director of the Institute for Rural Studies.

Hispanic farmers are spread across the country, with the largest concentrations in Texas, California, New Mexico, Florida and Colorado. They are likely to run small farms, with nearly 50 percent managing operations of less than 50 acres.

Those with small farms often find niche markets for their produce, including farmers markets or small retailers. But it's not easy to find buyers on a small scale, and it remains to be seen how many of the farmers will survive in the long run, Strochlic said.

In Monterey County, the nonprofit Agriculture & Land Based Training Association is helping small farmers, most of whom are Hispanic, find their niche and get the farming and management skills needed to stay in business.

Association spokesman Gary Peterson said people who farm smaller areas can make a living if they find the right market. For example, organic crops can go for about $16,000 an acre, meaning a 10-acre farm could bring in a net profit of about $40,000 or more a year, he said.

The group offers training, mostly in Spanish, to farmworkers and others who want to work their own or rented land and also leases 160 acres to beginning farmers.

Its organic distribution label has contracts with Stanford University, the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz, among others.

Like other farmers, Hispanic growers struggle to compete with cheap imports. And for many workers, owning land remains a distant dream.

Vega believes it was easier for his father to buy land years ago.

"You can do it, but it's a lot harder today,'' he said.

One reason is competition from housing developers for open space. It doesn't help "when developers are waving $100,000 per acre in farmers' faces,'' Vega said.

Vega faces the same uncertainty about the future as thousands of other farmers across the country: Who will take over his farm?

His sons aren't interested, and he said farming involves too much hard work to force it on anyone.

"If you're involved in ag, it's a lifestyle. You aren't going to get rich. You just have to love it,'' he said.