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Young Immigrants Are Re-Shaping Farming’s Future
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Young Immigrants Are Re-Shaping Farming’s Future

Jobs in agriculture have drawn many immigrants and refugees to the Midwest, working as crop pickers and meat processors. But now some immigrants – particularly the younger generation — are taking more decision-making roles in farming.

Reporter Amy Mayer talked to immigrant families who have bought farms and refugees who have received donated plots. She also discovered that some bilingual, bicultural Latino college students are setting their sights on leadership positions in the agriculture industry. Her two-part series was broadcast on Iowa Public Radio and other stations across the Midwest.

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Amy’s Story behind the Stories
My IJJ project has been a lesson in persistence.

The story idea struck me as straightforward: immigrants who land in farm country are likely to see farming or ag-related jobs as viable careers. Some may have farming in their families’ past, others may even be farming, or gardening on a commercial scale, here. Few will have family land to work, but some may find their own immigrant communities provide a niche market for crops not grown widely by mainstream farmers. Some young adults would see opportunity there, or in the broader scope of agricultural careers in the region.

The story concept emerged after I produced two stories in the summer of 2013 about refugees, including one about a man who’d been in this country for about 30 years and had finally bought his own land. I thought that surely once I started looking, I would find a variety of young adults who were pursuing various ag careers and happened to come from immigrant families.

The first person was easy—one family I’d met last summer had a 22-year-old son who helped in the large garden and was studying agriculture systems technology at Iowa State University. I met Pacifique Simon for the first time in May. I didn’t find another young immigrant in farming until July. But Teun Boelen also had a unique story to tell. His mother cautioned me that although he was willing to be interviewed, he wasn’t much of a talker. But he knew the diary operation and was especially lively around the calves. That made for great scene-setting, and his mom filled in the details about their relocation from The Netherlands to Iowa.

Dutch immigrant Teun Boelen works with his family on a dairy farm they bought after selling the family land in The Netherlands. Photo by Amy Mayer.

Throughout those months, and on into August and September, I reached out in every way I could imagine to find Latinos to include in the piece. I found several possible Hmong families with American-born adult children moving into family vegetable operations, started on land donated by established Iowa farmers. Interesting stories, for sure. But my editor cautioned against having too many refugees, lest we end up retelling a story I’d already told.

And I remained committed to including Latinos because they are the largest immigrant group in the region, they are disproportionately represented in the meatpacking plants and other less desirable ag-support jobs and yet Latino children growing up here would surely see that agriculture offered much more than just hard manual labor.

There were moments when my editor and I stopped to contemplate whether I was trying to make a story where there wasn’t one. I felt conflicted, but I had the luxury of time to let things percolate while I produced some other stories.

A breakthrough came when I spoke with an instructor at a community college who knew exactly the demographic I described. He told me about a couple of past students he’d had over the years, and one who was currently enrolled. My hope soared.

But the student declined to be interviewed. Still, that phone call did confirm that my hunch was correct: some Latinos who grow up in the Midwest do see opportunity in agriculture. I put aside my worry that I might be searching for sources who didn’t exist and re-doubled my efforts to find some.

There are any number of reasons why that student might not have wanted to share his story. But from talking with a wide variety of people, I feel confident suggesting that one likely reason is immigration status. Maybe he has permanent residency, a work permit or citizenship, but perhaps his friends or relatives don’t. I didn’t have the inroads into the Latino communities in this state to develop the trust necessary to draw out the stories I was looking for. And with significant attention on immigration in the news this summer, including Iowa Governor Terry Branstad’s less-than-welcoming comments about the unaccompanied minors arriving in the United States, I could understand the need for caution.

Then I connected with a consultant at the Iowa Department of Education. He had been trying to understand why Latino enrollment in high school and community college ag classes didn’t correspond at all with the increase in Latinos in the general school population. It was through him and contacts at the Des Moines public schools that I eventually found a daughter of Mexican immigrants who hopes to raise cattle on her own farm some day and also work as a large animal veterinarian. Then the assistant dean for diversity at Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences connected me with two Latino students.

Cousins Christina Gonzalez and Brian Castro both chose majors in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University. Photo by Amy Mayer.

During the long summer months when I was struggling to find the right people for my stories, I dug deep into data, making good use of many of the tips and tools presented at the IJJ fellowship conference. One of the best tips from AP reporter Martha Mendoza was to call the Census and ask someone to help me with my query. I took the same tack with the Census of Agriculture, after attempting to use the Quick Stats function myself and discovering the process to be rather less than quick. Eventually, though, I had the data I wanted in a format I could use.

From the 2012 Census of Agriculture I had the number of farm operators and their breakdown by ethnicity for all of the counties in the seven Harvest Public Media states. I also had, from the American Community Survey, the percent of the population who are immigrants in each county. One thing that leaps out when you map the data is the rural counties with high immigrant populations. Almost always, those counties are home to meatpacking plants.

After getting the data, I was able to enhance the web presence of my reporting, thanks to the fellowship training. With my notes from a workshop on Google Fusion Tables, I mapped my data. The combination of the workshop and the project gave me both a reason to use data and a way to map it. I had already played around with Fusion Tables, but hadn’t had a project that forced me to really learn to use the tool. The workshop boosted my skills, creativity and confidence for using data. I am now becoming a go-to person at Iowa Public Radio for other reporters who want to include data visualizations in the web versions of their stories.

As a result of this project, I am still drawn to this idea of the Latino community and its role in agriculture, particularly for the first generation born in the Corn Belt. I am hopeful some of the outreach I did this summer will ultimately lead me to additional sources and stories. Persistence paid off for me on this project. A cousin to persistence is longevity, and I have no plans to leave this state or this beat.

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