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SF Special: 4 Immigrants Fulfill Dreams of Becoming Farmers

These newcomers to U.S. agriculture break through boundaries to farm or manage farms.

Remember when farming was a place where hard work and persistence paid off? You could build a business from scratch?

Well, don’t tell these four immigrants that anything’s changed. Saul Pineda, Nancy Alcala, Nacho Escamilla, and Segundo Gonzalez would beg to differ.

All are Hispanics (from Spanish-speaking countries) or Latinos (from Latin America) who came here to work, and have built thriving careers in agriculture, some even running their own farms. Some came to the U.S. without ag experience, but all chose agriculture as the place to build a better life for their families.

They aren’t alone. There are 1 million hired farmworkers in the U.S. and 42% are born outside our borders, according to the USDA Economic Research Service. An additional 100,000 farm operators are of Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino origin, according to the 2012 USDA census data.

From picking strawberries in California to managing dairy operations in Wisconsin, these farmworkers, managers, and owners work to ensure that crops are harvested and livestock are tended to across the country.

Segundo Gonzalez: Dairy farmer in Waupaca, Wisconsin

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The Gonzalez family from left to right: Lauro, Marco, Vincente, Jaime, Silvia, and Segundo.

The journey from Ecuador, a mountainous country on the northwestern corner of South America, to Waukapa, Wisconsin, is nearly 4,000 miles. But Segundo Gonzalez, four of his brothers, and a sister have made it, and surpassed obstacles far greater than the miles. Today, they’ve fulfilled a dream of owning their own dairy farm of 200 Holsteins. 

Gonzalez’s father was a veterinarian and a farmer in Ecuador, he says, and his mother a nurse in their native village. “We are indigenous people to that area, and she was the first indigenous person to become a nurse,” he says proudly.

He followed his father’s footsteps and became a veterinarian in Ecuador. “But even as a veterinarian, we barely had enough to live on,” says Gonzalez.

A U.S. couple, Jim and Linda Belote, came to Ecuador in the Peace Corps and befriended the Gonzalez family, admiring the value they placed on education. The Belotes offered to sponsor Gonzalez in the U.S. at the University of Minnesota in a master’s degree program in animal science.

It took Gonzalez three tries to pass the English test, but he did it and got an assistantship working in the artificial insemination lab on the Minnesota campus. There, he learned the dairy A.I. business.

At graduation, he took a job on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, Jon-De Farm at Baldwin, working for the Dean Dornink family. “They were skeptical at first, but eventually they gave me a try,” says Gonzalez.

He started at Jon-De at the bottom – cow pusher. “I was moving cows up to be milked, cleaning, sweeping, and flushing manure out,” he says. “Looking back now, I’m really grateful for that beginning. It was a tremendous opportunity to learn how to find sick cows, or cows in heat, or spot mastitis. That’s where I learned all the practical things of a modern dairy farm. It was a lot more than just cleaning pens.

“And, I’m a quick learner!”

When his visa expired, Gonzalez and his family returned to Ecuador where he worked with small dairy farmers, teaching them what he had learned in the U.S. But the Dorninks wanted him back in Wisconsin, and helped work out the visa issues. Gonzalez returned to Wisconsin to manage an expanding dairy that was now hiring mostly Hispanic workers.

“Many of them had language problems, which I knew about from my own experience, so I could help them. Most were from Mexico and had a strong work ethic. Rather than call in sick, they would show up for work a half hour early.”

He also helped several of his siblings immigrate from Ecuador and join the farm. The first to come were brothers Marco and Lauro, but eventually a third brother, Jaime, and sister Silvia, came, too.

And, they soon started looking for a farm to buy to enter the diary business themselves. “We had acquired so much knowledge of and expertise in the dairy industry – milking, feeding, breeding, and housing. We kept thinking we needed to use it for ourselves. But we had no money to speak of,” says Gonzalez.

After a long search, they found the farm at Waupaca. The owner, Leroy Niemuth, wanted to retire and had no one to take it over. He was willing to make the Gonzalez family a land contract, limiting the cash they needed up front. The five siblings made the deal in 2011.

The Niemuth farm had 147 milking cows at the time of purchase. “They were pretty good cows then, averaging about 60 pounds of milk per day” Gonzalez says. “We have been breeding up ever since. We switched to 3X milking within a couple months, then we hired our first employee, Francisco, to help milk. He is still with us. My wife, Maria, takes care of calves.”

Now with 190 cows on 3X milking, the farm averages near 100 pounds of milk per cow per day.

There are 24 acres on the farm, so they have to buy most of the feed. “We’d like to change that someday; it’s a challenge buying feed,” says Gonzalez. “At first, nobody knew us and didn’t fully trust us, but now we have people calling us to sell us feed. Mostly, it’s alfalfa haylage and corn silage.”

Silvia, the Gonzalez sister, has a business management background, and she does all of the bookkeeping and other office chores for the farm. “We work as a team,” she says. “Marco is in charge of the nutrition and machinery, Lauro handles cow health and reproduction, and Jaime manages parlor and milk production.

“The purpose of having the farm is to keep the family together and maintain our traditions while we teach our kids the value of work,” she says.

Nancy Alcala: Sow farm manager in Beardstown, Illinois

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Nancy Alcala

Growing up in a small village south of Mexico City, nothing was further from Nancy Alcala’s mind than pigs. Now 33 years old, she’s a sow farm manager for Hi Power near Beardstown, Illinois. All day, she’s surrounded by 6,800 sows and 37 people – and they all report to her!

Fourteen years ago, she and her husband, Jorge, made the 36-hour car trip to Illinois, where two sisters were already living. “I wasn’t legal, I had no visa. We already had one child, 6-month-old Hugo. I had finished high school, got married, had a baby, and there was no opportunity for us in Mexico. We came here for our family’s future,” she says.

Her sisters worked for Excel meat packing in Beardstown, so she and Jorge got jobs there, too, stripping hog fat with an electric knife. “I did it for about six years and had three more babies,” says Nancy. “It was a hard life, but worth it being here. If I was in Mexico, and got a good job, I might make $100 a week. Here, I make about $800 a week.”

One day Nancy went to get a driver’s license, got led to the immigration office, and ended up in immigration detention in Chicago, with intent to deport her back to Mexico. “I was there for two months, in limbo, with Jorge taking care of my babies. I had no criminal record, and I had a job. So after those two months, they could have deported me. But they said they would work with me to get to legal status, and I was released.”

Even that release was a harrowing experience. She was alone in Chicago with no friends, and not even a phone. Eventually, a kind restaurant owner gave her something to eat, loaned her a phone, and Jorge was able to come get her.

Over the next few years, Alcala got her immigration issues resolved to permanent status. “Toward the end of that five-year process, the attorney told me we either get this resolved now, or I could still be deported. I cried over that, and told Jorge if they send me back, you and the kids are not going with me. There’s nothing there for us. We would have split our family up before I took the kids back. But that year, I got permanent status. I called Jorge and said, ‘We did it!’ ”

During this time, Alcala started working for High Power Pork. “I knew someone who worked there, and that got me in the door,” she says. “The first job was a pig processor. We get over 50 litters a day, so there’s a lot of processing.

“After a year, I was promoted to a farrowing supervisor, and got to help in other parts of the farm, like the breeding barn. I’m always looking to learn something new.”

The pig company had adopted a new computer system that involved a new way of entering sows into the program. There were five books in the farm office that were about this new system, and Alcala started taking them home at night, one at a time, until she’d read them all. “In the evenings, after I’d dealt with the kids and family things, I studied those books.”

One day, Alcala said to her boss, “Let me tag and enter a new group of sows. If I do it wrong, well, I’ll un-do it all myself, on my own time.” The boss agreed, and when Alcala got done tagging that day, he asked her, ‘How did you learn this?’ ”

That kind of initiative eventually got Alcala promoted to assistant manager of the farm. Then when the boss took a new job, Alcala was the easy choice to replace him as farm manager. “Since then, I’ve been in charge of 6,800 sows and 37 employees.” The employees are about 50-50 men and women, and 50-50 Hispanic and non-Hispanic. “We’re all equal here,” she says.

“I like the people at work; everything starts with them,” she says. “My favorite thing is communicating with people and learning about them. I use that knowledge to encourage them and get good work from them.”

Alcala coaxes some impressive production numbers from her staff, and her sows: 11.2 pigs weaned per litter and 96% conception rates.

She is salaried, and gets bonuses for good production. And recently, she was asked to step into a new role at High Power Pork, helping to start up a brand-new sow farm.

She and Jorge and their family live in the little town of Beardstown, Illinois. “We want the kids [Hugo, Charlie, George, and Kimberly] to go to college, that’s what I’m working for. They get good grades, and they know what we expect of them.

“Jorge and I don’t have everything we want, but we’re working for it. We try to teach that same lesson to the kids.”

Saul Pineda: Aronia Berry Farmer in Olathe, Kansas

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Saul Pineda (right) and his son, Jesse

Saul Pineda is the last guy you’d have guessed would be running his own farm. The 39-year-old fledgling aronia berry farmer, who grew up a couple hours south of Mexico City, had no farm connections when he came to the U.S. “My grandfather worked on a farm at one time, but that’s the only farming connection I had,” he says.

At age 18 and newly married, he moved to Chicago, where he had sisters and brothers already living. “There was nothing in Mexico for us – no jobs, no future,” he says. Eventually, he, Victoria, and their two children landed in the Omaha area, and he worked construction. Later, he added a second full-time night job in floor maintenance.

The construction job opened the door to farming. “The owner of that company asked me to help out on a piece of property he owned where he was planting aronia berry bushes [also called chokeberries].” The sour berries are used in many food products, including jams, wines, ice cream, and beer, and are said to have health benefits.

“I liked working with the plants and the soil, and a dream started to form in my head to have my own farm,” says Pineda. “It would be a business of our own, and to support our family down the road.”

Land near Omaha was expensive, so he went online and cast a broader search net about five years ago. “It took me seven months before I spotted 5 acres near Olathe, Kansas, for $3,000 an acre. I did the budgets, and bought it in 2013. The next year, I bought another 5 acres next to it.”

Then he went to work developing his new property for the aronia bushes. The little farm is south of Kansas City, and 3.5 hours south of Omaha, where Pineda still lives with his family and works the floor maintenance job.

His schedule since 2013 has been something like this: Monday through Friday, work two jobs, both full-time, in Omaha; get off work Friday night and sleep a few hours before heading to Kansas with his son, Jesse, arriving about sunrise; plant, water, mow, and tend the berry bushes all day Saturday and most of Sunday; drive back to Omaha Sunday evening to start the same schedule over.

Such a schedule may sound grueling, but it never seemed that way to Pineda. “I worked two full-time jobs for about 10 years,” he says, “and could make about $50,000 a year. Victoria works at a hotel. We saved enough to pay for the land outright, and to plant the farm.

“Victoria is a really good saver. We wouldn’t be where we are without her.”

Someday, when they can afford it, they hope to buy more land on the Kansas site, build a house, and live there. “When the aronia fruit gets closer to first harvest and producing income, I’ll get more serious about that,” he says.

For now, they have planted about 6.5 acres of the aronia plants, mostly using a 2-inch auger he rigged up on an electric drill hooked to a portable generator they pulled around the field. The first 5,000 plants are now four years old; 3,000 are three years old. They’ll start producing harvestable berries in a couple years.

“We’re building a future for our family,” Pineda says. “We’re not going back to Mexico.”

Jesse, now 20 years old, also works at the floor maintenance business in Omaha with his dad. Daughter Kimberly, 19, is a college student at Iowa Western Community College.

“It seems odd, even to me, that I’ve become a farmer,” Pineda says. “But I really like it. When I’m working here on the farm, I don’t even feel the hours.

“I hope I can encourage others. Work hard, and you can do good.”

Ignacio Escamilla: Dairy farmworker near Alma Center, Wisconsin

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Ignacio Escamilla
Ignacio Escamilla, called Nacho by his friends, is 39 years old and came to the U.S. in the early 1990s when he was just 16 years old from a town 10 hours south of the Texas border. Because he was underage, it was hard to get work, so he moved from Pennsylvania to Florida to Indiana working on horse and dairy farms, even though he had little experience in farming.

Eventually, the dairy work led him to the Heller Family Farm near Alma Center, Wisconsin.

“I started at the bottom, as a milker, and I had no experience with machine milking,” says Escamilla. “I did that for several years, then I moved to the crop part of the farm, mostly driving tractors and trucks. When an opening came up for me to move back to working with the cows, as the manager of the milking parlor, I took it. Now, I manage the cow barn, treating cows, and managing fresh cows.”

As such, Escamilla does all the hiring, and firing if needed, for the cow barn, and has full authority over the milking operation. That’s 1,500 cows and 12 employees he directly is in charge of. Through his journey, he has become a U.S. citizen, through help from Blake Heller.

Escamilla is married with two children, both now college age. One of them, Omar, age 18, is at Wisconsin-River Falls and wants to be a veterinarian, or a farmer, or maybe both.

“It’s in our long-range plans to have our own farm,” says Escamilla. “We have a few horses already. Now that the kids are where they are, things may change. Maybe there will be enough money to save for a farm.”

Escamilla’s first dream is that the kids will finish college. “I don’t want them to have to start on the bottom, like I did. I want a better life for them.”

Escamilla has developed a side business of helping other dairy farmers in Wisconsin find farm workers. He and a coworker at Hellers, Jose Castillo, teach new Hispanic dairy workers the skills they will need to work on farms. “We have a reputation for training them well,” says Escamilla.

He and Castillo also get called to other farms to help with employee issues such as language skills. “Sometimes they just need a translator,” Escamilla says. “On some farms, hardly anyone speaks English, and we can help. Or they may need to learn a new milking system. It’s a nice sideline job for us.”

Escamilla laughs when asked about his own English language skills. Much of it, he says, came from watching U.S. television. “I can read English decently, but my problem is in writing it,” he says. “When I went for my citizenship test, I had to write something, and that was the hardest part. But I passed, and I couldn’t be happier with my life here!”

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