Latinos are learning to farm Minnesota-style

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 8, 2014 - 7:03 PM

Latinos who dream of becoming farm owners are forming co-ops and getting business training.

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Members of the Agua Gorda cooperative plant onion seeds in Long Prairie, Minn. They work around full-time jobs, dreaming of owning their own farms.

Photo: Tom Meersman• Star Tribune,

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LONG PRAIRIE, MINN. -- Like the 3-inch tomatillo and pepper plants they’ve hand-planted in a field, the Agua Gorda cooperative is in its early stages of growth.

Its five members are part of a pilot program that’s preparing Latinos to learn the American way of farming, and perhaps position themselves to take over for retiring farmers whose families want out.

“I want to be a farm owner some day, not just a farmworker,” said co-op member Javier Garcia, just before mounting a tractor to till part of the 5.5 acres the group is farming this year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture shows that only 316 farms in Minnesota have owner-operators who are of Spanish, Hispanic or Latino origin, out of 69,020 total farms. That report also shows that the average age of Minnesota farmers is 56.6 years, continuing a steady, long-term trend upward.

The aging demographics and the growing numbers of Latinos in rural Minnesota got Ramon Leon thinking. He is CEO and president of the Latino Economic Development Center in Minneapolis, which has a track record of helping Latinos who started out as dishwashers and delivery truck drivers to become successful owners of restaurants, groceries and shops. But for all that success in cities, Leon said, the same could not be said of farming.

“Latinos in Minnesota don’t have access to land. We don’t know Latinos that own 100 acres,” Leon said. “Access to capital is an issue, and access to training.”

To that end, the center began developing business training programs three years ago for aspiring farmers, and has provided small loans. In addition to Agua Gorda in Long Prairie, Latino cooperatives have sprung up in Madelia, south of Mankato, and New Richland, near Albert Lea.

Step by step

The name Agua Gorda comes from a city in Mexico that has sent half of its population to Long Prairie in recent years to work on farms and at the state’s largest meatpacking plant. The co-op’s members work full-time at those jobs and work evenings and weekends in fields that they rent.

The fruits of their harvest — tomatillos, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, kohlrabi, melons and eggplant — will find their way by summer’s end to Twin Cities homes and restaurants.

“There are a lot of Latino workers in agriculture that aspire to be farm owners if they had a chance,” said John Flory, special projects director for the Latino Center. “The question is what model can we use to bring them from being low-wage agricultural workers to having an opportunity to be a farm owner.”

It’s a step-by-step process, he said, and Agua Gorda is in the forefront of testing whether a cooperative that rents land can lead to individual land ownership. The center’s training covers co-ops, business plans, finance, insurance, marketing and more.

The first step for Agua Gorda was to join a newly established community garden behind the First Baptist Church in Long Prairie. Lyle Danielson, the city’s economic development director, realized that nearly one-third of the 3,500 residents were Latino, so he spearheaded the garden program a few years ago with about 100 rental plots available to everyone.

“My primary reason wasn’t for vegetables,” he said. “It was to get Anglos and Hispanics together, and I made sure I put them on different plots next to each other.”

Danielson said residents across the street from the community gardens were “up in arms” at first, but soon saw that the gardens were neat and attractive. “I had three neighbors come and apologize to me, and they’re now showing it off as a town attraction,” he said.

Lesson learned

In its first year, Agua Gorda members each put up $250 and borrowed $5,400. They sold $7,000 worth of crops grown on six plots in the community garden. In 2013 the cooperative expanded to 3.5 acres by renting nearby city land, and grew $40,000 worth of produce.

“They did everything with rototillers and by hand,” Danielson said.

  • related content

  • Cooperative member Javier Garcia planted red onion sets in Long Prairie. Budget ID# 526517 Credit: Tom Meersman / Star Tribune

  • Jaime Villalaz of the Latino Economic Development Center talked with Lyle Danielson, economic development director for the city of Long Prairie, Minn.

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