Land of opportunity
WORTHINGTON -- Stepping over mounds of pepper plants, rows of lettuce and vines of squash, Antonio Colindres smiles as he looks around his field of dreams -- his land of opportunity.
Once a corn, Mexican bean and rice farmer in his native El Salvador, Colindres left his agricultural roots behind when he left El Salvador in 1983 to find his American dream. Now, 20 years later, those agricultural roots are being revived thanks to the aid of local farmers and the New Immigrant Agriculture Project (NIAP), a program of the Minnesota Food Association.
The goal of NIAP is to help immigrants build up a business and sell their products on a commercial scale. In many cases, the crops the immigrants grow are things they have difficulty finding in the local grocer's produce aisle.
Planting the seed
NIAP was established in 1998 with a grant obtained by the Minnesota Food Association and administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to assist African, Asian and Latin American immigrants develop farming opportunities in the state. By 2000, the program included 250 immigrant families of African, Asian and Latin American descent. They grew crops on land primarily in the Twin Cities region. At that time, Alvaro Rivera was hired as the NIAP outreach coordinator for the Latin American participants.
In 2001, funding for NIAP was lost and the program ceased for two years. They rebuilt the program in 2003 after securing funding and today, 116 immigrant families grow crops under NIAP.
One of the main hurdles NIAP participants have to overcome is adjusting to Minnesota's climate. Not everything they are accustomed to growing will reproduce in the Midwest.
"Many have a strong agricultural background, but they never lived here," said Rivera. "They don't know the climate, the weather, the agricultural pests and diseases that you have here."
Part of Rivera's job is to find the resources to help immigrants learn the ways of crop production in the Midwest. Those resources may include anything from talking with landowners to finding ways to market their crop.
At this time, NIAP has a presence in four areas of the state -- Worthington, Owatonna, Chaska and its headquarters in Stillwater. Most of the program participants lease ground, although more are starting to purchase land and develop a larger business.
Cropping up locally
Just when NIAP was being re-established in Minnesota, retired Worthington farmer Lyle Adolph had visited the local Extension office to see if anyone was interested in having a garden plot.
"(Immigrants) had come in to work at Swift and I thought some of them would like to garden," said Adolph. "I had a lot of lawn here around the buildings when I quit farming. The grass had grown up and I thought that was just a waste."
Adolph was soon introduced to Colindres and, in the last three years, has had natives of Ethiopia, El Salvador and Mexico growing vegetables on his land. While Adolph doesn't get paid rent for the land, he is glad to see it being put to use -- and watching the unique crops grow is kind of fun.
"They like to raise peppers," Adolph said. "A lot of the things I had in my own garden, but the one fellow has a kind of squash that I've never seen before."
North of Worthington, Jerry Perkins has leased a five-acre plot each of the past two years to local immigrants. He became involved in NIAP when the Extension Service sought land owners in the area to help with the project.
"We're interested in the multi-cultural thing," said Perkins who, with his wife, Terese, worked in Chile and Bolivia while in the Peace Corps and have returned to Latin America several times for volunteer projects.
"I went into (NIAP) with the understanding that I would just provide the land," said Perkins, adding that he has helped some of his 10 produce growers as questions have cropped up. He also works the land in the fall and the spring and provides a roto-tiller to help with weed control.
"I think they need the very best technical advice they can get in terms of commercial garden production, and that's been hard to come by," Perkins said. "My vision was we could find someone that was a mentor in the area of commercial vegetable production, but so far we haven't been able to do that."
In the last two years of offering the plot, Perkins said they have faced some obstacles. This year it was finding a water source because Mother Nature didn't deliver timely rains. Another obstacle, from the producer's standpoint, is getting their crops to grow in a different climate.
"It's a learning process," said Perkins. "It isn't something that happens quickly. I imagine our ancestors that came here had similar experiences."
Dealing with this summer's drought was a learning experience for Colindres and other immigrant produce growers. Yet, they found ways to work around the problem. This year, a 1,000-gallon water tank was brought to the site to deliver much-needed moisture to the plants. Perkins said eventually they will need an irrigation system -- but that takes money.
Colindres grew sweet corn with seeds from El Salvador in addition to hot cayenne and other varieties of peppers, Mexican beans and chilacallote squash.
"I'm not doing this as a kind of business, it's mostly an experiment to see how the plants will grow in this area," said Colindres. At the same time, he's hoping he and fellow immigrants can grow the experiment into a successful business.
"We hope the local businesses and local government will be involved in this project in order to make it more successful. This can bring business for the economy," he added. "Agriculture is the pillar of any economy."
Just down the road from Colindres' plot, Alejandro Rodriguez grows tomatoes, green bell peppers and zucchini cabbage on his one-acre plot. While he hopes one day to grow enough produce to begin selling his product, it hasn't quite reached that level yet.
"We try to sell, but we don't get that much because we just have one acre," he said. "I'm not sure for next year, but I think we will still plant the same -- get an acre and try to improve to see if we can get better products."
Rodriguez said he'd like to have more land some day -- more land to grow produce for more than just his family and friends. He is grateful for NIAP because it allows him to farm just as he did in his home country.
"It's a good program because they give us the opportunity to grow," he added.