The New American Farmer

By Troy Bishopp

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Hamilton, N.Y. – Students equipped with their smartphones and tablets packed a lecture room at Colgate University to learn about, of all things: The new American farmer.  Dr. Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern, Assistant Professor of Food Studies from Syracuse University’s Falk College gave a perspective and presented research about Latino immigrant farmworkers striving to become farm owners.  According to the USDA Ag Census, this is the largest population of new farmers entering agriculture.

In her lecture: “The New American Farmer: Agrarian Questions, Race, and Immigration”, the Cornell graduate explored the significance of farmworkers and other first-generation Latino immigrants to the United States aspiring to be small-scale farmers and their agrarian contributions in changing the food system landscape.  Dr. Minkoff-Zern’s field exploration embodied her extensive experience with sustainable development and agricultural biodiversity projects abroad, combined with work on migrant health issues domestically after spending many years working on farms and with agriculture and food organizations in Guatemala, New York, Virginia and California.

“I didn’t set out to explore this topic but got interested after hearing the contradictions in food insecurity for farmworkers in California’s Salinas Valley, said Minkoff-Zern. She explained talking to Joel Campos, Senior Manager of Outreach & Advocacy for Second Harvest Food Bank and learning that two-thirds of farmworkers were visiting weekly.  As Campos put it, “This is the salad bowl of the nation and people are starving”.

“Between the low wages, lack of culturally appropriate foods, seasonality of work, food insecurity, monoculture crop growing, pesticide applications and the longing for a small, diverse culturally traditional farm, farmworkers wanted to transition to farm owners and control their rural heritage, said Minkoff-Zern. They are not just workers, they have a tremendous amount of agricultural knowledge.”

The hurdles to becoming a farm owner are fraught with challenges as access to land, capital and markets plague many would-be farmers around the country. Couple this with language, literacy and citizenship barriers and you have an uphill climb.  According to Minkoff-Zern, “The government (USDA) is slow in reacting to this opportunity to enhance the farming population.  When you talk to agency staff they continue to associate Latino immigrants as farmworkers and not owners and are ill-equipped to handle the language barrier and explanations of all the forms in a succinct manner.”  She cited the 2000 Garcia/Cantu discrimination case with the USDA 047handling of loan practices for Hispanic farmers as evidence that work still needs to be done.

Farmers being an independent lot are finding ways to farm by pooling and sharing resources, working together in a small community, saving up money, leasing land and accessing traditional funding avenues.   What are most Latino farmers working towards?  A place that honors a feeling of “home”.  For most, this means a small, very diversified local farm where family work ethic is revered and shared with direct markets.  “Generally, they want to control their farms and what kind of inputs they use.  They are very aware of the effects of chemicals, so use less or tend to move towards organic production”, said Dr. Laura.

When asked by students about social justice movements and how Latino farmers are reacting; Minkoff-Zern said, “Most farmers are not interested in this and want to be left alone to farm and raise their families like everyone else. Hard work and respecting the land and culture is paramount.  I think they are like all US farmers, they wouldn’t shy away from a little praise now and then.”

This diverse perspective and conversation about the food system is being led by the Lampert Institute for Civic and Global Affairs at Colgate University. The Lampert Institute provides a forum for study and debate in the areas of civic affairs and public leadership, applying insights from the liberal arts to the challenges facing human beings around the world.

During the 2016 spring semester the Lampert Institute will sponsor a series of speakers and events to explore and address such questions concerning food, its future prospects, and its ongoing place in our lives and cultures. Upcoming topics include:  Understanding Urban Food Issues: Sources, Policies, and Ways Forward; High Seas Fishing and its Impacts on the Citizens of Developing Nations; and Fighting Hunger in America: From Food Charity to Structural Change.

To access the Lampert Institute’s calendar, go to www.colgate.edu/centers-and-institutes/lampert-institute. Dr. Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern can be reached at (315) 443-3987 or lminkoff@syr.edu

Published by Country Folks