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Q&A: Katherine Marcano-Bell, Dominican Republic native and Iowa farmer

Iowa seemingly has little in common with the Dominican Republic, but the Midwestern state and the Caribbean island nation have both been called home by Katherine Marcano-Bell.

“When I think of my childhood, I think of playing marbles and jumping rope, attending a parochial school, and going to Mass. There were hardships, but there was also a lot of love from a big extended family. It was amazing,” she says.

Marcano-Bell’s family, though, believed living in the United States would offer her more opportunity. So, she moved with her mother to New York City when she was 11.

“I was taken from a very sheltered environment into an inner-city public school system,” she says. “It was terrifying at times.”

Eventually, she developed friendships that helped her navigate those difficult years. She now looks fondly upon her time in New York City. “It was my first home in the United States,” she says. “Living there shaped me to the core.”

Still, she wanted a fresh start after high school graduation. “I met some people who went to college in Iowa, which is how I made that connection,” she says. “I moved to Cedar Rapids, attended Kirkwood Community College, and graduated from Mount Mercy University. My original plan was to graduate from college, get a graduate degree, and move outside of Iowa for more experiences and travel.”

SF: How did you end up farming?

KMB: I worked two jobs while putting myself through college. Because of how much I worked, my social circle was limited. So, I went on Match.com and met my husband that way. He had moved to Kansas City after college and had just come back to Iowa to farm.

His father and two uncles were farming and raising cattle. My husband didn’t want to raise cattle, but without them, he couldn’t farm because there was no room. So, he contracted with a local integrator to finish hogs. We now have five facilities where we finish around 25,000 hogs each year. We also farm some crop ground.

Contracting [hogs] has been a lifesaver, as it’s our main income. We’re also not as susceptible to market fluctuations, because we are paid whether the market is up or down. It has helped us tremendously on the crop side, because the hog manure cuts fertilizer bills.

SF: Have you and your husband thought about expanding into other enterprises? 

KMB: We thought about putting up a nursery, which is a bigger investment. As much as we love pigs, we decided it would consume us and we wouldn’t have any life outside the farm. We are fine with solely being a finishing operation.

SF: What faming challenges do you and your husband face? 

KMB: Labor. Our immigration system is so messed up. It shouldn't be easier to walk across the border or overstay your visa than it is to get a work visa for farm workers. There also are regulations for everything. It is a lot to keep track of and is quite overwhelming. Medical insurance is another. The number one thing that will drive someone bankrupt in this country are medical expenses, so you have to have medical insurance. You cannot get a loan from a bank if you are not properly insured. All this is not that romanticized view of farming on Hallmark TV.

SF: What was farming like in the Dominican Republic?  

KMB: The lines were often blurred between rural and city areas. Even though I was born and raised in the capital city, some of my neighbors had backyard chickens, pigs, and horses. People worked in sugar cane fields right next to where we lived.

SF: Was it difficult to move from an urban area to a rural area?

KMB: It was easier for me to transition to southeastern Iowa [from New York City] than it was for me to transition from the Dominican Republic to New York City. Still, when I moved from Cedar Rapids to where I currently live, I thought, There are no movie theaters nearby! I also love going salsa dancing, and where was I going to do that? I learned how to drive, and that made me feel more independent, because you had to drive so far for everything. But when you love somebody, you will pretty much do anything for them.

SF: Do you use social media? 

KMB: Social media is a tool, but it can be misused. Social media is great because as farmers, families tend to be more isolated. It does help you keep in touch with what's going on, but also it can stress you a lot. I am selective in participating, because I have other priorities. If I feel I can speak up for agriculture, though, I definitely take the time.

SF: The country is becoming more ethnically diverse. Is agriculture? 

KMB: It almost feels everyone talks a big game on how can we diversify as an industry. How can we encourage women to come forward? How can we welcome minorities? Many times, it’s just a talking point that does not materialize. Sometimes, I feel people only want to talk to you when they want to gain something from you, such as clicks on a website. I have talked to other Latinos who farm or have started their own farmers market or restaurants. We’re just not another token. We’re serious people, doing our own thing.

SF: What do citizens of the Dominican Republic think of the United States? 

KMB: The Dominican Republic has an excellent relationship with the United States. Iowans have traveled to the Dominican Republic to assist producers there in the detection of African swine fever. There’s not a producer that I’ve spoken to there who does not know about Iowa.

Background

Katherine Marcano-Bell initially worked off the farm but now farms with her husband, Brandon, and their two sons, Landon (6) and Owen (4), near Keota, Iowa.

“It surprises a lot of people that women are actually involved in agriculture,” she says. “They often are the ones making a lot of the farm decisions. I wear different hats because I’m also a mom and a homemaker, but who doesn’t these days?”

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