This story was originally published by The Gazette, a newspaper in Iowa.
With dirt crunching under his feet, Max Chavez trekked across his 10 acres of land, grasping wooden stakes in his hands. They were marked with his handwriting: “Bell pepper” on one, “green beans” on another. Every few paces, he stuck a stake in the soil — marking where his harvest would sprout months later.
Chavez grew up farming in Mexico. He moved to California at 13 years old, and then to Iowa in 1999. After planting and pruning grapevines around the state, he saved enough money to rent land, growing tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and more.
When asked what it takes to run his farm in Carlisle, named Sunny Valley Vegetables, 55-year-old Chavez had a quick response: “Money.”
Between record-high farm production expenses and declining farm income, producers are facing higher financial burdens than ever before.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is there to help. Most farmers receive some sort of support from the USDA — from cash subsidies for commercial farmers to microloans for small-scale farmers, and conservation services to crop insurance. The department shells out billions of dollars a year for such resources.
But, like many other immigrant farmers and ranchers in the United States, it’s hard for Chavez to access — or even find out about — those opportunities. He said he’s still waiting on funding from the USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program that he was approved for, which would help him purchase needed equipment and materials.
“I don’t believe in them anymore,” he said of the USDA. “If I don’t have that money, how am I going to feed the people?”
The USDA has made steps toward increasing accessibility for historically underserved producers, including immigrant farmers and ranchers. But producers and advocates say it’s not enough. They want more solutions included in the forthcoming Farm Bill to level the playing field.
Samuel Patiño, 74, grew up in the Mexican countryside, where his family grew corn, green beans and other produce. He moved to the U.S. in 1973 and started farming 16 years ago. He now owns 21 acres of land in southwestern Missouri, raising livestock, poultry and produce.
Patiño only discovered the USDA around 2014. But he hasn’t successfully applied for farm operating loans or funding for a new fence. He said that’s due to the language barriers he faces: Patiño can understand basic information in English, but not anything technical related to farming — including how to apply to USDA programs.
Even for producers proficient in English, applying for USDA resources isn’t simple. Applicants must decipher what programs they’re eligible for and then navigate through a series of steps to be approved. They need to provide the correct paperwork — which could mean years of data to keep track of. Some even hire grant writers for assistance.
Working through the maze grows even more difficult when the forms and their instructions aren’t in a producer’s native language.
“Sometimes, I feel that we are ignored,” Patiño said in Spanish. “We sometimes get stuck because we don’t communicate very well.”
Language barriers are among the biggest challenges for immigrant producers, said Eleazar Gonzalez, a small sustainable farm state extension specialist at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. Since 2011, he has worked with Latino farmers — including Patiño, whom he helped secure funds for a small greenhouse — to improve their agribusiness literacy, profitability and access to USDA programs.
Most immigrant producers don’t have a college education; many didn’t finish high school, Gonzalez said. So their literacy is limited — especially in English. That makes successfully applying to USDA programs difficult: Applicants may not understand the requirements necessary to qualify, like keeping records of transactions, nor the intensive paperwork.
To add to the difficulty, most USDA applications and materials are only available in English. Translations may be available only upon request to the local USDA service center. As a result, many immigrant producers don’t fundamentally understand how USDA programs work.
USDA efforts — and shortfalls
The USDA has taken several steps to help increase access for immigrant producers, said Gloria Montaño Greene.
She is the deputy under secretary for the USDA Farm Production and Conservation mission area that covers the agency’s farmer-facing agencies, including the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Risk Management Agency. It oversees 2,000-plus service centers in the U.S. and its territories.
Montaño Greene said the USDA is working on translating its programs for producers in their native languages. Some of the higher-demand items, like parts of the Inflation Reduction Act and factsheets, already appear in different languages. Some items are translated on a state level.
Last year, the agency had more than 730 documents — including fact sheets, news releases, contracts and forms — translated into 30 languages. But not all USDA materials are translated.
Applications, for instance, are typically only offered in English, except for a few that have been translated into Spanish or have directions in Spanish. Translated press releases are few and far between.
The USDA also provides free interpretation services for 14 languages, including Spanish, Korean and French Canadian — the most requested, so far. Producers must go to their local USDA service center, where a staffer can make a call to an interpreter for simultaneous translation during the discussion.
As a whole, those services aren’t seeing a huge demand yet, Montaño Greene said. Last year, there were 109 interpretation calls made: 86 for the Farm Service Agency, 22 for the Natural Resources Conservation Service and one for the Risk Management Agency.
The USDA is trying to promote them to customers and employees to increase use.
“I know that’s not the most perfect solution, but it also does help with a language barrier,” Montaño Greene said. “I think we’re trying to figure out how to do the language access and then complement it with our outreach and education.”
The USDA is also funneling funds to community-based organizations that can serve as trusted connections between the department and immigrant producers.
Universities can receive funding for such work through the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Its Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, for instance, supports beginning producers in the U.S. and allocates at least 5 percent of its funding to projects helping producers that are socially disadvantaged, have limited resources or are farmworkers transitioning to farming. The program helps fund Gonzalez’s work with Latino farmers in Missouri.
These steps are just the beginning, Montaño Greene said.
“We have more work to do,” she said. “I think we will always have work to do.”
Community organizations are pushing for USDA improvements in the forthcoming Farm Bill, which is a legislation package that is renewed every five years. It provides funding for various programs, spanning from commodities to conservation and crop insurance to rural development.
The Center for Rural Affairs is asking Congress to release non-English versions of program announcements simultaneously with English versions. It’s also asking that educational materials and program sign-up forms be available in other languages. Additionally, the center wants Congress to create a list of reliable interpreters in each state that can help producers maintain a longer-term relationship with USDA service centers.
“We want to make sure that information is baseline accessible,” said Kate Hansen, senior policy associate for the Center for Rural Affairs. “So, expanding it more fully … is actually our end goal here.”
Gonzalez said reducing the number of requirements and paperwork for USDA opportunities could make them more accessible to immigrant producers. More in-person agent-to-farmer outreach could encourage more participation, too.
As the number of farms declines while the average age of farmers creeps higher, the future of American agriculture hinges on the success of beginner producers — like immigrant farmers and ranchers. To get the support they need, producers and advocates alike say USDA accessibility must improve.
“This is one thing for economic reasons, but also socially, we want to see equity in food systems in the country,” said Joseph Malual, a community and economic development specialist with Illinois Extension at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “Why not position immigrants who are U.S. residents and citizens to get that equity?”
This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and the Society of Environmental Journalists, funded by the Walton Family Foundation.
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