Rodrigo Cala walked into the bank thinking it would be his first step on the traditional path to starting a family farm: get a loan, get some land, get some seeds.

But Cala, who had only recently emigrated from Mexico, learned his first lesson in American agriculture when the loan officer found he had no credit score: “If you don’t have credit,” he recounted, “you don’t exist.”

In many parts of the world, farming is just about growing food. Minnesota’s burgeoning immigrant farmer population is discovering that, in the United States, it is often about business — credit, marketing, contracts and networking.

“Farmers who want to start small farms have huge obstacles,” said Hilary Otey Wold, executive director of the Minnesota Food Association. “Immigrant and minority farmers even more.”

To help Minnesota’s minority farmers overcome those obstacles, Otey Wold’s association runs a certified-organic incubator farm called Big River Farms east of the Twin Cities in Marine on St. Croix. The three-year program rents plots of land to farmers and offers training on everything from tractor skills to marketing. Its alumni have gone on to land accounts with Chipotle, Lunds and Byerly’s and Whole Foods Market.

Cala, a graduate of the program, now sells leeks, rhubarb, cabbage, cilantro and other produce from his 46-acre farm in Turtle Lake, Wis., to restaurants and wholesalers. “You need to be a really good business person,” Cala said. “The hard part for a farmer is not the land or the weather.”

Last year, Kano Banjaw, a native Ethiopian and third-year Big River Farms trainee, watched as some of his crops went unsold, then to waste. He and other immigrant farmers had saturated local farmers markets — a familiar format from their home countries — and suffered from the resulting competition among vendors.

“That is the only outlet,” he said. “Being a newcomer here to this country … we don’t have connections, we don’t have networking. ”

Part of Big River Farms’ mission is to help participants find new outlets, forging relationships with restaurants, co-ops, and wholesale food vendors to diversify their sources of income. Stable relationships with restaurants and contracts with wholesalers can bring farmers set prices and guaranteed sales, rather than waiting to see who shows up at a farmers market.

But immigrant farmers often face language and financial barriers when they venture beyond direct-to-consumer sales like Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms or farmers markets.

“Connections matter, and in farming it really matters in terms of who’s going to buy your food,” said Robin Major, a manager for Shared Ground Farmers’ Cooperative, another effort to help minority farmers. “Anglo farmers are much more likely to have connections where local food is cool.”

Groups such as Big River Farms and Shared Ground help offset overhead costs by pooling expensive resources such as warehouses, coolers and refrigerated trucks.

They also help cull big accounts from wholesalers — with the Minneapolis Public Schools or Kowalski’s, for example — before passing them onto small farmers to manage themselves.

Consumers benefit too

It can be a challenge for plots of 5 acres or less to scale up and consistently provide large, high-quality amounts of produce. But it’s a challenge worth tackling, according to Pakou Hang, co-founder and executive director of Hmong American Farmers Association, another source of support for minority growers.

“If you’re only selling at farmers markets, it can really jeopardize your source of income,” Hang said.

Otey Wold said minority farmers also struggle to find or afford land close to the Twin Cities that’s substantial enough to support a living, or to get their hands on farming publications written in languages other than English.

But ultimately, she said, consumers also benefit from the fresh, diverse herbs and vegetables that become available when farmers from other agrarian cultures learn to flourish on unfamiliar ground.

Hang said that in the 22 years since her parents first started selling at the St. Paul farmers market, she’s seen white customers develop a taste for bok choy, Thai chili peppers and sugar pea blossoms for stir fries and broths.

Joe Hatch-Surisook, owner of Sen Yai Sen Lek restaurant, said the growing network of immigrant farmers allows locally sourced restaurants to incorporate exotic and fresh produce into their menus. His Thai restaurant uses Chinese broccoli, long beans, and Thai eggplant and basil in its menu partly because of purchases made from Big River Farms.

“For farmers I think it’s such a shift from where they’ve come from to where they are,” Hatch-Surisook said. “Being able to grow something that has a connection with your past, with your former country keeps things rounded.”

 

Marion Renault is a student reporter from the University of Minnesota on assignment for the Star Tribune.