Farming has never been easy. For people new to the United States, the hurdles can be insurmountable. In Minnesota, obstacles include limited access to capital, equipment, markets and affordable land with long-term availability.
“The most pressing challenge is access to land,” says Becky Balk, principal planner and land use program manager at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
“Without secured farmland, investing in large-scale farm machinery that can optimize production or soil nutrition to increase yield doesn’t make economic sense.”
With this in mind, Balk set out in 2011 to determine how the state could better serve the immigrant farming community.
Birth Of The Immigrant Farming Initiative
“The [Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Immigrant Farming] Initiative developed numerous outreach, technical and financial services,” Balk says. “Some of these include helping farmers find land, conducting in-field training and workshops on topics such as soil sampling, pest identification, weed management, chemical safety, and financial planning, as well as the establishment of a pilot agricultural micro-loan program.”
The department sent more than 1,000 letters statewide, searching for land that was available for sale or rent on a long-term basis for immigrant farmers. Moving forward, the department will continue these efforts through an online program accessible through its website.
It has also helped lead bilingual training sessions and assist other organizations developing bilingual training curriculums.
The initiative also led to formation of the Immigrant Farmers Partners Breakfast Group. The informal gathering connects core partners working directly with immigrant farmers and resource partners who provide access to financing or training. Thus far, the group has collectively established partnerships, grants and other programs to improve immigrant farmers’ success throughout Minnesota.
Since launching the initiative, Balk has watched the support for immigrant farmers grow from a half dozen to more than 40 organizations in 2015.
A Symbiotic Relationship
In 2014, immigrant farmers helped the Minnesota Department of Agriculture conduct a new survey identifying invasive pests of fruits and vegetables in and around urban areas, which are at the highest risk for introduction.
All signs indicate this mutual relationship will continue to benefit both the Department of Agriculture, as well as immigrant farmers.
Although labeled “beginning farmers,” many immigrant farmers come from agricultural backgrounds. They are simply inexperienced with Minnesota’s climate, soil or the resources available.
To combat this handicap, organizations like the Minnesota Food Association have established incubator farms that enrich farmers’ knowledge while providing other key resources.
“We work with farmers from all cultural and language backgrounds,” says Hilary Otey Wold, executive director for the Minnesota Food Association and Big River Farms. “We have a full array of classes and curriculum for beginning farmers to develop sustainable farm businesses,” including the unique opportunity to learn certified organic farming methods.
The food association also acts as a local food hub. It aggregates, markets and distributes products that farmers grow at Big River Farms. Further, the organization hosts the Annual Immigrant and Minority Farmers Conference, which is free for all immigrant farmers to attend.
As for distribution channels, many immigrant farmers have found success by participating in local farmers markets, like the St. Paul Farmers Market.
With the help of numerous dedicated organizations, immigrant farmers in Minnesota now have a support network, which in turn has shown positive effects on the entire farming industry.
“They bring that passion for growing, food and community to their work as farmers,” Wold says. “We have nothing but great benefits that come from that.”