Building Capacity and Engaging Latinos in Local Food Systems

Jan L. Flora, Faculty, Sociology Department
Between 1997 and 2007, the number of farms operated by Latinos grew from 343 to 491 (43%).  The share of female Latina operators tripled, increasing from about 10% to 31% of all Latino/a operators. The average farm size of Latino-operated farms was 291 acres in 2007 and just over half considered farming to be their primary occupation   As the number of Latino farmers grows, their average age (52 years) has slowly decreased, while for all farm operators the average age is increasing (56 years in 2007, nearly two years older than five years earlier).  This work was supported mainly by a grant from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
Many more new immigrants from Mexico and Central America have small-scale diversified farming experience, and would like to farm in Iowa, according to research conducted by Hannah Lewis (see J. Flora’s 2007 Success Story).  The end goal of this two+ year project (January 2008-May 2010) was to launch a new generation of organic and sustainable farmers and market gardeners in two Iowa communities with substantial immigrant populations. In Marshall County, this involved renting small plots in a 140-acre incubator farm at Marshalltown Community College that had been transitioned to organic.  In Denison (Crawford County) it involved expanding and revitalizing the community gardens and exposing Latino/a and other gardeners to the idea of marketing some of their production through direct marketing venues.
The principal objectives were:

  1. With local actors, to plan and implement efforts in Marshall County and in Denison (Crawford County) that would complement existing initiatives in support of new immigrant farmers.
  2. To develop bilingual training/outreach materials in collaboration with Marshalltown Community College in Marshalltown and for Extension and other community-based organizations in Denison/Crawford County, to initiate or develop local multicultural food systems.  In Marshalltown, we collaboratively developed a course for new and aspiring farmers emphasizing farm and marketing plans, and to a lesser degree production techniques. The course was done twice:  Spring 2009 and Spring 2010.   In Denison, 3 2-hour informational meetings were held in the spring and summer of 2009, led by Extension and other professionals.
  3. In Marshall County, a second part was to build a multicultural local food system consisting of producers, local retailers, consumers and others.
  4. To make the lessons and bilingual training/outreach materials from these pilot efforts transferable to other communities in Iowa and the Midwest.  

In Marshalltown, the project included a bilingual organic farmer training program with curriculum in English and Spanish appropriate for persons with limited literacy.  In January through March 2009, Marshalltown Community College offered an eight-week bilingual (Spanish/English) session for area residents that wanted to start farming and selling their vegetables locally. The course was modified based on lessons learned the previous year and repeated from January to May 2010.  Instructors included MCC faculty, PFI staff and small and diversified farmers, ISU Extension and outreach personnel, an Iowa MicroLoan person, and Sustainable Agriculture students at ISU. Coordination was handled jointly by MCC and ISU Sociology Extension.  To assess possible markets for these new producers, ISU sociology students, with the Marshalltown Chamber of Commerce, conducted a survey of Latino and Anglo businesses to determine their willingness to buy locally-produced food.

 Seventeen students completed the training, and twelve of them started farming on the MCC organic farm in the 2009 season. Students/farmers came from diverse backgrounds, including individuals born in Mexico, Iowa, and Sudan, as well as the land manager of the Mesquaki Settlement. Because the new farmers held other jobs that kept them very busy, the classes involved the entire family, with activities for the children to introduce them to farming.  The class was repeated in 2010 with a similar number and diversity of students.  In 2009, of the six teams of farmers that rented land from the MCC farm, five were Latino families.  Three teams sold produce in the Des Moines Farmers’ Market and one experimented with selling to retailers in Marshalltown and Ames.

Partners in the Marshalltown endeavor include Prairie Rivers Resource Conservation and Development, Marshalltown Community College Entrepreneurial and Diversified Agriculture, Iowa State University Extension, and the National Center for Appropriate Technology.  These entities also planned, with Prairie Rivers RC&D in the lead, a series of four community meetings leading to a new vibrant local foods organization called Harvest from the Heart of Iowa. 

In Denison, we work with Latino immigrants recruited to the Community Gardens through collaboration between Farmland Foods, where the gardeners worked, and the City of Denison, which provided land and water. Prior to this project, there were 14 community gardeners, all but one Latino/a (2008 season). That year there were 4 empty plots of 16 available, and in 2009 there were only two empty plots out of 20 offered. The number and size of plots were expanded further for the 2010 season.  The collaboration of local organizations is so strong and enthusiastic that the ISU team feels comfortable about retiring from the effort. Anglos and Latinos were recruited for the 2010 season. 

Three training sessions were held at the ISU Extension office in Crawford County, and there was good attendance from the Latino community in Denison, mostly gardeners at two of the three sessions. The training sessions covered issues of pesticides and fertilizers (conventional and organic), marketing options, and companion planting. 

Outcome Statement: 
Short-term results measure awareness and knowledge.

It was a positive experience, especially for my children. They were able to experience the hard work, and time it takes to develop something that can be called our “own”. (Latino person who took the class)
The 2009 MCC class had the following short-term impacts, according to students:

Medium-term results measure behavior change
In both communities, many farmers used their produce to augment the diets of family and friends; some also donated to the church. Farmers interested in selling their produce had a difficult time. In Marshalltown, a few were able to sell their produce locally, particularly to persons wanting to support local food systems. Some participated in the Des Moines Farmers' Market. The farm manager, who had a stand at the Market, sold produce for them. Even so, they did not make money. One farmer attempted, with difficulty, to sell to local grocery stores. Those interested in selling to local stores and restaurants agreed that they need to learn more about the varieties stores want to purchase.

In Denison, the following outcomes were cited by gardeners in a focus group evaluation:

In Marshall County, a vigorous local foods group was established in November 2009.  One committee is about to publish a local foods directory for the area 30 miles around Marshalltown.  One Latino is on their board of directors.
Long-term results measure condition (i.e., new standard).
In the 2009 season, not one community gardener in Denison sold any produce.  All was consumed at home or given away to family and friends.  Diego Thompson, the ISU graduate student who coordinated the Denison project this past year, did his thesis from interviews with four community gardeners/beginning farmers from each of the two communities.  He concluded that a number of positive cultural values about growing things and providing them to one’s family and friends made selling the produce a much lower priority.  One gardener used his produce to builds relationship with fellow workers, both Latino or Anglo: 

“See with chilies, I take bags to work and there I take out my chilies and if people ask me, “Will you give me one?” I say, “Yes man, take what you want”. Yes, every day I have my bag with my chilies or other produce. Look at those tomatatillos! Many people came and took them…”

So this is an important lesson: the meaning of food to those who grow it is much more complex than was initially anticipated. A practitioner or social scientists must develop programs in concert with those meanings, rather than trying to change people’s values to fit the values of the market.  Secondly, in order to successfully involve underserved groups in mainstream programs, it is important to craft the programs carefully to involve them every step of the way.  If the program is worthwhile, members of the dominant group will participate in any case.  The Start your own Diversified Farm class at MCC was designed with Latino immigrants in mind and they were recruited heavily.  Still, half the class was Anglo because what was being offered was of value to everyone. 

The central question this project set for itself was, Can we devise programs that incorporate (Latino) immigrants into all aspects of the food system?  The answer is yes, particularly if you listen to them carefully, but it is harder than we initially thought. 

130 Horticulture:  Commercial and Consumer
180 Other ANR
200 Building Community Capital


Thompson, Diego 2010. “Somos del campo -- Latino/a gardeners and farmers in two rural communities of Iowa:  A Community Capitals Framework approach,” thesis in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Science in Sustainable Agriculture and  Sociology, Iowa State University, May.

“Latino Farmers and Local Multicultural Food and Marketing Systems,” $61,000, Feb. 2008-January 2010 (J. Flora, P.I.).

Page last updated: May 5, 2010
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