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Farming's new faces

DANIEL LOOKER 03/20/2013 @ 10:56am Business Editor

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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