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Hispanic Women put new face on U.S. farming

When strangers turn from a two-lane country road onto the gravel drive of the Grazeway Dairy, they see a young woman tending the cows. They invariably ask where the boss is. “People come here and think I’m the hired help,” Terri Hawbaker says.

They’d better rethink. Hawbaker is 24, a woman, a new mom — and the owner of a 120-acre farm and 65 dairy cows in this flat, rural stretch of mid-Michigan.

About 100 miles away, near Lake Michigan, the produce market on state highway M-140 in Covert still carries the name of a prominent local family. But the store and 60 acres of rich farmland that produce the luscious apples, strawberries, blueberries, and tomatoes on display have a different owner: Armando Arellano, an immigrant from Mexico.

Mirroring the demographic transformation of the USA, American farming is becoming more diverse. There is a marked increase in the number of women and Hispanics who are “principal operators” — those who run the farm.

Women and Hispanics have long played a significant role in farming, but often in supporting jobs from picking crops and milking cows to bookkeeping. But an aging population, the surge in Hispanics in every corner of the country and Americans’ growing fascination with organic foods are propelling more women and Hispanics into owning and managing farms.

“Agriculture in this country is changing in ways we don’t even know,” says Ron Wimberley, an agricultural demographer at North Carolina State University and former president of the Rural Sociological Society.

The latest Census of Agriculture by the U.S. government shows that women’s presence as principal farm operators is growing in 43 states. More Hispanics are running farms in all 50 states, planting roots in regions where their role in agriculture had been limited largely to migrant labor.

To those who cherish Thomas Jefferson’s idea that farmers are the cornerstone of democracy, the growth is worth celebrating. “It’s very encouraging that there are people who want to farm,” says Ralph Grossi, president of the American Farmland Trust, a non-profit group that works to protect farmland. “We’re seeing a reconnect.”

American farming is still dominated by non-Hispanic white men. About 27% of the nation’s 3 million farmers are women who run farms alone or who work with their husbands or others. About 2% are Hispanic. Black farmers, whose numbers have dwindled steadily throughout much of the past century, make up only 1.2%.

As giant agribusinesses extend their hold on food production, the amount of farmland and the number of farms are declining.

But there’s an uptick in small farms that have 10 to 49 acres and annual sales of less than $10,000. Organic farms are contributing to some of that increase. Almost 12,000 farmers reported selling some organic foods for a total of $393 million in sales in 2002.

That’s a tiny portion of the $200 billion U.S. agricultural market, but the numbers and the growing popularity of farmers’ markets and organic grocery stores show that health-conscious Americans are clamoring for locally and organically grown produce. It’s a market that some female and Hispanic farmers are starting to serve.

“The urban population has a favorable attitude of farmers, particularly as they think about where their food comes from,” Wimberley says. “People are very safety-conscious, what with this low-carb, high-carb business.”

The trend may change the politics of agriculture. Almost 70% of government subsidies now go to 10% of farmers, Grossi says. When debate on a new farm bill starts next year, he expects small farmers to be more vocal. “There certainly will be a reason to question why so much public support goes to so few farmers,” he says.

‘A new generation’

Farm groups are reaching out to the new arrivals.

“There is a new generation coming into agriculture,” says Sandy Penn, outreach coordinator with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Michigan. “They need to understand how to get financing, how you do things. . . . A lot of programs have to be put on in Spanish.”

Among the reasons for the increase in female and Hispanic farmers:

* Aging. When male farmers die, their widows often take over. When farmers retire, they sometimes offer loyal employees a chance to buy some land, especially if no one in the family wants to keep the farm going. Many of those longtime workers are Hispanic.

“They came in as farm workers and have gotten to the point where some of them want to enter as operators,” says Calvin Beale, a rural demographer for the Agriculture Department.

* Love of land. Farming is deeply rooted in the culture of many Hispanic immigrants who have rural upbringings. Owning a farm brings some of them closer to achieving the American dream than does a house in the suburbs. The long history of abuse of Hispanic migrant workers makes such accomplishments even sweeter.

“Among our people, the land is very precious,” says Felipe Llerena, the Texas-born son of Mexican migrant workers. Llerena and his 10 brothers and sisters own about 800 acres near Bangor, Mich.

Their father harvested crops from Texas to Minnesota and later worked as a steelworker in Indiana. He eventually moved to Michigan and found work in the blueberry fields along Lake Michigan.

“He didn’t know nothing about blueberries,” Llerena says. “But he knew how to work the land. He knew how to take instructions.”

The family pooled resources to buy the first 20 acres and a farmhouse in 1979. They bought several small parcels and later the farm where the father worked.

Today, Llerena, 38, owns 5 acres of blueberry fields but spends more time as the liaison to migrant workers for the local school district. Three of his brothers own 250 acres: Guadalupe is the full-time farmer; the other two are Hector, a state trooper, and Leo, a retired Army sergeant who lives in Germany. Another brother, Valentino, and his sons farm about 300 acres. Another, Rodrigo, and his children farm about 150 acres. A sister, Maria, has 80 acres. Another sister, Margarita, has 10.

“Something that my dad would tell us when we were growing up is that you can never go wrong with land,” Llerena says. “The land has been good to us.”

* Quality of life. Rural life appeals to families aching for a return to traditional values. Many long for a time when children did chores rather than play electronic games, a time when they knew that chickens have to be slaughtered to make chicken nuggets.

“Kids today are sort of plugged into computers, TVs. My kids aren’t,” says Lori Laing, who owns a 200-acre dairy farm near Battle Creek, Mich. Her children, ages 10, 8, and 6, do chores from feeding calves to cleaning the barn. “I think I’m going to have a different child than anybody else,” says Laing, 42. “They know what work means.”

* Specialty farms. Herbs, goats, raw milk, organic vegetables — they’re all niche markets for small farms. So is the growing field of “agritourism,” the use of farmland for tours, concerts, fairs and other entertainment.

Patti Warnke and husband John own 40 acres and rent another 7 in central Michigan. Their 13 cows aren’t enough to support a family of seven. Instead of buying more cows to increase production, they sell shares of the cows to health-conscious people willing to pay extra for raw, unpasteurized milk.

Selling raw milk is against Michigan law — but not drinking milk from your own cow. About 55 people now own a share of the Warnkes’ cows. For $125 a share and $35 a month, each co-owner is guaranteed at least 2 gallons a week of fresh, unpasteurized milk.

* The housing boom. The demand for landscaping plants and shrubbery soars every time a subdivision is built. As a result, nurseries and greenhouses that sell to developers and landscapers can thrive even during downturns in the agricultural economy.

* Brains over brawn. New farm equipment, technology, and creative approaches make it easier for women and city folks to cultivate land. Almost 40% of the nation’s 2.1 million farms use computers for farm business. Half have access to the Internet.

“A lot of people are doing the kind of farming that’s perhaps more about having your head in the farm business (than) having brute strength,” says Carol Osborne, who works with the Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance, a non-profit educational group that promotes locally grown organic foods.

Laing’s dairy-science professors warned her about the hardships of farm life. “Not a single person thought I could do it because of the machinery, the mechanical end of it, the physical work,” she says. “But there’s a secret among farmers: ‘If you don’t know how to fix it, somebody does.’ “And when the cows are sick, her husband takes care of them. He’s a veterinarian.

‘Women . . . can compete’

Milking time is twice a day at the Grazeway Dairy. While husband Rick is doing chores on neighboring farms, Terri Hawbaker takes 1-year-old son Clyde to the milking “parlor,” an elegant name for the barn where cows are hooked up to milking machines.

Clyde sits in a playpen surrounded by a plexiglass shield, a few feet from the cows. When Hawbaker needs to work around the farm, she carries Clyde in a backpack. When he’s napping in the house, she keeps tabs on him with a baby monitor. “I think it’s really important women understand that they can compete with men,” says Hawbaker, who grew up on a farm nearby.

The youngest of four children, she was determined to keep farming. She completed a two-year dairy farming college program and bought land from her father. She struggled to find a lender willing to take a risk on a young female farmer, and she succeeded.

“This was my plan,” she says. “This was my dream.”

Terri’s older brother is a successful farmer in Ohio. And her sister is Patti Warnke, 32, who runs the cow-share program 7 miles away.

Laing, the Battle Creek farmer, grew up a mile from her grandfather’s farm. When her grandfather talked about retiring, she volunteered to milk the cows at night to keep the farm going.

After college, she partnered with her grandfather, expanded the farm operation and eventually bought it from him.

“I couldn’t ask for anything better,” she says. “I don’t think there’s any other job that you get paid the same as a male does.”

An immigrant’s dream

Armando Arellano wears his rancher straw hat proudly as he gives a tour of his farm and freshly painted produce store. A year ago, he bought 60 acres that produce 14 varieties of apples, berries, peaches, and vegetables. He also bought the store, the house behind it for his family and the one next door for his father.

Arellano worked on farms in his native Zacatecas, Mexico. When he came to the USA, he worked as a baker for 21 years.

“But I never forgot the farm,” says Arellano, 36. “I always wanted to earn money, make money and buy a farm. Everything was, ‘How can I get a farm?’ ”

He moved from one bakery job in Burbank, Calif., to another in Chicago. His wife, Genoveva, worked at a Target store. When a customer asked him to consider opening a bakery in Michigan, he checked out the area, then heard that an orchard was for sale.

“I just walked in and said, ‘This is what I was looking for.’ ” He applied for a loan and told his wife to pack up the house and kids.

A year later, the Arellanos have no regrets. Genoveva runs the store. Armando’s father helps with the farm. Armando supplements his income by driving a school bus. Every Tuesday, he gets up at 3 a.m. to haul frozen fruit to Chicago.

“I worked 12 hours a day in the bakery, and it was for somebody else,” Arellano says. “Why not do it for myself? I’m happy.”