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Farming's new faces

They are different, yet united by a toughness that farming demands. They are among the newest faces on the nation’s landscape, yet many have a long heritage in growing food.

Laurie Schmidt of Nemaha, Iowa, is one. By midsummer of 2012, her face and arms are tanned from working outdoors. She’s pleased at having sold some of her corn for over $7 a bushel, but she’s worried about the cracks appearing in her dry fields. It’s her eighth season growing corn and soybeans after her husband, Roly, died in December 2004. She’s no stranger to the rigors of farming. “I was 11 years old when Dad had me on tractors,” she says. But Schmidt went to college for her other job; she’s a middle school physical education teacher.

It was her husband of 28 years who bought seed and sold the crops, a skill enhanced by working for an Illinois grain elevator.

“He loved hedging. He lived for that,” she says. So her first season of choosing hybrids, planting, and marketing was a plunge into the unfamiliar. She got a gentle push from three other farmers in a machinery sharing group that included the Schmidts. Her seed dealer and her brother, Don Mason, also talked her through those early steps.

“This group of three men and my brother and my friend, the seed dealer, never even questioned that I could do it,” she says.

Another new farm owner is Filiberto Ochoa of Warsaw, Virginia. In late fall, his fields are a colorful mix of lettuce, peppers, cabbages, squash, and herbs. He carries bunches of chives he has cut as he limps slightly toward visitors. He fell from a ladder days earlier while working on a shed for his drip irrigation pump, spraining an ankle. Before dawn the next morning, he and wife Lorena and daughter Nancy will take produce to farmers markets near Fredericksburg and in Washington, D.C. Ochoa and his family came to the U.S. in the 1980s, picking produce in fields from Florida to New Jersey before staying in northern Virginia to work for farmers there. Three years ago, the Ochoas bought their first land, 24 acres, for $175,000.

“I try to keep a little bit of money. I go to the bank, and I buy my own place,” he says. Nancy, who plans to expand the farm, is an artist with vegetables. She mixes green, yellow, and purple beans to sell as “rainbow beans.” The farm caters to the many ethnic groups buying at farmers markets.

“We always like to grow new things we come across,” Nancy says.

Minnesota might seem a cold place for a third group of newcomers, the Hmong people from Southeast Asia. Recruited by the CIA to fight communists in Laos during the Vietnam War, the Hmong fled to refugee camps in Thailand before emigrating to Europe and the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s. Robert Lor is one who was drawn to Minnesota for its good schools and job market. He eventually became a trainer for a plastics company. His wife worked in electronics assembly.

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“In 2009, I got laid off. I had been with the company almost 10 years,” Lor says. His wife soon lost her job. “We started to do farming, little by little,” Lor says. In 2012, they grew 8 acres of produce to sell to farmers markets and Asian restaurants.

The recession sent many Hmong immigrants back to farming, if they weren’t already renting small plots for vegetables.

“It’s not good income, like before, but we have no choice,” Lor says. “Right now, we don’t have health insurance, but thanks for God’s blessing, we don’t have any problems.”

Lor, who is Christian, compares his people to the Jews of the Old Testament – a strong culture often exiled. Native to southern China, the Hmong were persecuted at least from the days of the Ming Dynasty (which built the Great Wall). By the 1700s, many fled to Southeast Asia. They have always farmed. over- and undercounting Schmidt, Ochoa, and Lor represent growing diversity among America’s farm operators in the past decade. In just five years between the 2002 and 2007 Census of Agriculture, the number of Asian farm operators grew by 34%.

A 10% jump registered in a larger number of Hispanic farmers, which includes families in Texas and New Mexico who have farmed since the area was a colony of Spain, as well as recent immigrants. Women farmers, who now make up 14% of all principal farm operators, increased by 29%.

Asians still make up only .5% of the 2.2 million large and mostly small farms in the Census. Hispanics count for 2.5%. Women are less than 9% in some Midwest states.

Not all farm women are running a tractor like Schmidt, who shares a planter with her machinery group and drives a combine the group rents. Some women farmers have share-rental agreements and count as operators “as long as they had sales that were attributed to them,” says Mike Duffy, an Iowa State University economist who uses ag census data.

Duffy is skeptical of some trends. Between 2002 and 2007, USDA reached out to ethnic groups that might have been undercounted in the past, Duffy says. “This increase in the population was a majority of the very small farms.” Those changes may skew results between 2002 and 2007.

Still, Duffy says, “I think there’s very definitely been an increase in the number of women farmers.”

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As farmers age, there are more widows. Machinery makes physical strength less crucial. “It’s also more acceptable in society for women to be in charge of farms,” he says. USDA will soon tabulate the 2012 Census mailed out in December. “When we see changes from 2007 to 2012, they will be on a more comparable basis,” Duffy says.

At USDA in Washington, it’s too early to know the 2012 results, says Renee Picanso, director of the Census and Survey Division at the National Agricultural Statistics Service. When asked if these trends will continue, she says, “My personal opinion? I would say yes. I don’t have anything to base that on except hearing from our people and also reports in the media.”

Increasing demand for locally grown food is creating more opportunities for small farms near cities, she says.

Duffy doesn’t disagree. One other trend – the loss of young farmers – may improve, he says. From 2002 to 2007, farmer operators under the age of 25 dropped by 30%. Since then, farming has prospered. “The last time we saw a bump was in the boom of the 1970s,” Duffy says.

It’s also possible that even with its outreach, USDA has underreported new farm operators among ethnic groups. Stephanie Romelczyk, Extension agent for Westmoreland County, Virginia, works with many of the Hispanic growers who are part of the Ochoa family’s extended clan. The 2007 Ag Census showed only four Hispanic farmers in her county. “I’d say there are over 30,” says Romelczyk.

USDA has incentives to keep reaching out. It has already paid more than $1 billion to settle claims of discrimination against black and American Indian farmers. Undercounting in the Census before 2002 was part of the controversy. Today, it is looking into claims of discrimination by women and Hispanics.

Barriers and tradition

Subtle forms of prejudice remain in rural America. Last summer, a township board north of the Twin Cities passed an ordinance regulating agricultural garden plots run by Hmong farmers. It restricted farming before 7 a.m. Susan Stokes, executive director of Farmers Legal Action Group, based in St. Paul, argued that starting late in the morning endangered the farmers during the heat of the summer and treated them differently from corn and soybean producers. The town board rescinded the ordinance.

In northern Virginia, Elizabeth Borst, the Spotsylvania Farmers Market manager, says she hears from a few farmers who complain that Hispanic growers are overproducing vegetables.

Tom Weaver, a seventh-generation farmer at the market who sells pork, says he’s heard griping, too. “What I do hear from other growers is a lot of grumbling, but the work ethic is there. They’re thriving,” he says of the newcomers. “The demand for local produce is there, and it’s not being met.”

Some limits may be self-imposed. A woman asked Schmidt if she bought pink tools. “I don’t want a pink hammer. I want one that works,” Schmidt says.

Sally Gran is a young woman who manages Table Top Farm, a community supported agriculture (CSA) produce farm near Nevada, Iowa, along with business partners Chris and Kim Corbin. Her husband, Luke, has an off-farm job and keeps the books; the two of them joke about it being a role reversal. The Grans have a network of young produce-growing friends made through a group called Practical Farmers of Iowa. About half of the CSA operators they know seem to be women. Yet, if a married couple runs a CSA, the men still drive the tractors.

“Last year, we had a couple of women working on our farm who drove tractors, and one of them knew quite a bit about them. I feel that’s something that’s going to be changing,” she says.

Dreams realized

Hard work is paying off. Lor and his wife have raised nine children. Despite setbacks, they’ve saved for a trip to China and their Southeast Asia homeland this winter.

A younger Hmong farmer, Vince Xiong, is working to promote organic methods. Another Hmong farmer, Chu Vang, has a son who is following her into the business.

In northern Virginia, Veronica Ochoa and Gerardo and Omar Flores bought 60 acres in 2011 and rented 20 more last summer. Besides vegetables, they raise herbs and spices that immigrants can’t find in a supermarket.

“If people ask for it, we raise it,” says Gerardo’s son, Omar. Omar’s cousin, Roberto Medina, plants vegetables and strawberries on 15 acres that he rents for $100 an acre. “I’ve been here a year and a half,” he says, “and there are 10 guys wanting me to farm their land.”

In Iowa, Schmidt has settled into farming. She’s on the board of her county Farm Bureau. She’s getting used to marketing. “I think I’ve become less panic-driven,” she says.

She checks prices four to five times a day and reads the advice of “the so-called experts.” She makes her own marketing decisions, selling in increments throughout the year. “I like to save a little bit back, just to play with,” she says.

Schmidt loves teaching and will miss it when she retires, but it will allow her to get up in the morning and just farm.

“I love being out in the field. I love that smell of dirt,” she says.

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