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.

But success in 2013 also produced disappointment. The co-op sold only about half of its vegetables because it didn’t have the markets, said Jaime Villalaz, business development specialist for the Latino Economic Development Center.

“That was a huge lesson to us that if there isn’t a market developed, then we can fail,” he said.

In 2014 the co-op won’t make the same mistake, Villalaz said. It has signed contracts worth $60,000, purchased a used tractor, and nearly doubled the city land that it rents.

One of the biggest markets, La Loma Tamales in Minneapolis, will purchase 30,000 pounds of tomatillos and 3,000 pounds of serrano peppers to make salsa. A restaurant owner in Willmar will purchase Roma tomatoes and serrano peppers for pico de gallo.

La Loma Tamales co-owner Noelia Garcia said the co-op’s prices are competitive and its produce is excellent, but she is also attracted for other reasons. “We’re buying more because we want to help each other,” she said. “We want to build a new relationship with a local co-op and see what else in the future they can grow for us.”

Agua Gorda has also joined the Stone’s Throw Agricultural Co-op in Minneapolis, which sells shares of produce and meat from three rural farms and one urban farm through a community-supported agriculture program. Flory said the Latino Economic Development Center is supporting that effort to build markets and recently purchased two refrigerator trucks to pick up produce at the farms, and a small warehouse in St. Paul to store it for distribution in the Twin Cities.

One of the Stone’s Throw farms is co-owned by Rodrigo Cala, who has a 46-acre organic farm near Turtle Lake, Wis. Cala is helping Agua Gorda and others get their start by providing technical and marketing advice and connections.

Standing near his truck after shuttling thousands of seedlings to Long Prairie, Cala said the work goes farther than helping farmers move toward their dreams of owning land.

“My idea is to put all these farmers on organic commercial production so they can also focus on their community,” he said. Latinos are afflicted with diabetes and many other health problems, Cala said, partly because of poor food choices and eating habits.

Risky business

Niel Ritchie, president and CEO of the nonprofit Main Street Project that works on developing sustainable models for agriculture, cautioned that all farming — especially seasonal work — is risky, and that even gigantic vegetable growers don’t make their whole livelihood from them.

“It’s not as if people who are working low-wage jobs can just quit them and become farmers,” he said.

But Ritchie said that cooperatives are the right model to use, and that Agua Gorda and similar efforts represent a logical outgrowth of the growing populations of Latinos in nonmetropolitan areas. “These are people trying to improve their condition and they’re thinking the right way about ownership and control,” he said.

Agua Gorda is still in its formative stages, Villalaz said, but is already making a positive difference in more than just farming. “When you go to communities the people start seeing you there working so hard, and then they give you some respect,” he said. “They start thinking of us as good people.”