Program Helps Immigrant Rural Farmers
Integrating immigrant farmers is critical for the rural Midwest.
The farmers and ranchers met in the Cassville [Mo.] Public Library because it is roomy and well lit. They came for the advice about how to find loans and maximize their tax returns. They didn’t realize they were part of an effort to save the rural Midwest.
The Midwest’s rural towns and their farmers are getting older, meaning the working‐age population is shrinking, says Domingo Martínez‐Castilla, director of the Cambio Center at Mizzou. Where there’s population growth happening, it’s because of immigrants. “[They come for] the most capitalistic of reasons,” Martínez‐Castilla says. “There’s an opening for labor.”
Although urban areas have always been entry points for immigrants, small towns lack the experience or the structures for absorbing newcomers, Martínez‐Castilla says. “There’s huge potential for misunderstanding.” And for aspiring farmers and ranchers, there’s a huge potential for failure. In Missouri, the number of Latino‐operated farms and ranches declined 25 percent from 2002‐07, according to the most recent federal agriculture census.
To address those problems, Stephen Jeanetta, assistant extension professor in rural sociology, launched a new Cambio initiative, the Beginning Farmers Program, using funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The aim of the three‐year program is to connect 72 immigrant farmers, half living in Missouri and half in Nebraska, to the community resources around them — the banks, the professional associations and government agencies.
In May 2013, the first cohort of Missouri farmers completed their training, which consisted of 10, 2 1/2‐hour Saturday sessions.
Eleazar Gonzalez, MS ’01, PhD ’07, a research associate on the project, led the Missouri sessions, which resulted in some of the farmers getting private bank loans for a new tractor, more cows or other improvements.
“Most have had a childhood life in farming,” Gonzalez says of the participants, many of whom raise cattle or grow specialty crops on small plots of land after their shifts at the factory. The largest farm in the group was 150 acres. Their questions were not about how to raise their cattle, for instance, but about all the ways raising cattle is different in the U.S. “The more important part to them was how to deal with the Internal Revenue Service, how to declare their income, how to form their business, where to buy wholesale feed.”
Three more rounds of training are planned in Missouri through fall 2014. The hope is that, after the training is done, the farmers will teach others in the immigrant community and pass on what they’ve learned.
Successful integration will help stabilize rural populations, says Jeanetta. “There’s real competition for workers within the U.S. and internationally,” he says. “How does a rural community compete? They have to find their own [residents]. If you’re not integrated, those needs aren’t going to be met.”