A contentious link in the food chain
Centro Campesino plays an important role in supporting the Latinos who have settled in Minnesota permanently and are ready to become even bigger players in the economy. The U.S.
Census shows that the number of Latino-owned businesses in the U.S. tripled between 1997 and 2002. “More than 1,000 Mexican-American businesses alone operate in Minnesota, generating an estimated $200 million in sales,” reports the Minneapolis Foundation.
Few of those businesses are farms, but the potential is great, considering the rural background of many Latinos. In 2006, the Land Stewardship Project had consultant and farmer Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin prepare a report on farming possibilities for Latinos/Latinas in Minnesota. Based on an examination of statistics and interviews with members within the Latino community, Haslett-Marroquin concluded that there is great potential in this area. In a 15-county area he studied, Haslett-Marroquin estimated there were 3,289 Latinos who could be farm owners in the future.
“These are individuals who have already experienced farming, have firsthand training and could serve as a core target market to initiate a statewide program,” he concluded.
Haslett-Marroquin found that the growing Latino population in states like Minnesota offers a huge marketing opportunity for farmers willing and able to raise ethnic specialties.
Armando and Bertha Maziel are working to take advantage of such an entrepreneurial opportunity. Armando, 44, and Bertha, 49, crossed the border illegally into California in 1979 and received amnesty from then-President Ronald Reagan in 1986. In 1996 they came to Minnesota and Armando started working as a welder. They eventually bought 10 acres near Hayfield. They have four adult children—three live in Minnesota, and one is in California.
“We always had the idea of having a business where we would raise animals or something,” says Armando during a recent visit to Centro Campesino’s Owatonna office. “My dad used to work in agriculture.” Bertha’s family raised chickens in Mexico, so after a decade of planning and saving, she and Armando are in the midst of a poultry enterprise. They recently completed construction of a small chicken house. They raise some 3,000 chickens a year—inside during the winter and outside in nice weather.
The birds are sold fresh to a Latino market on Lake Street in Minneapolis.
The fledgling enterprise has gotten a jump-start via the New Immigrant Agriculture Project, an initiative of the Minnesota Food Association. The project assisted the Maziels with construction plans for their chicken house. It also helped them develop feed rations and marketing options.
Bertha’s eyes shine as she talks about their growing enterprise. “I’m pretty positive that things are going to work out,” she says.
The need for better policy
But even long-time permanent residents like the Maziels express concern about how lawmakers are making political hay at the expense of migrants and immigrants, pushing for policies that are redundant, ineffective or even counterproductive.
“I’ve noticed more discrimination towards Latinos recently,” says Bertha.
“The environment gets more tense.” “They try to dehumanize the issue.
They talk about ‘illegal aliens’ and ‘criminals,’ ” Torres says of anti-immigrant groups and their political allies.
Centro Campesino is allied with 1,500 organizations, including a group that is literally next door to them in Owatonna and which represents recent immigrants from Somalia who work in meatpacking plants. Such coalitions of groups are pushing for immigration policies that don’t make workers criminals and don’t create situations where families are separated on opposite sides of the border for months, sometimes years, at a time.
Centro Campesino can be contacted at 507-446-9599 (voice) or 507-4461101 (fax). It’s on the Web at www.
centrocampesino.net. The address is: P.O. Box 525, 104 1/2 Broadway Street West, #206, Owatonna, MN 55060.
Centro Campesino has also been very active in fighting state initiatives that in their opinion would make life much tougher for immigrants and migrants— legal and otherwise. There are concerns that tougher criminal penalties for being undocumented will punish all Latinos in Minnesota, no matter what their status, and increase “racial profiling.” “We need reforms that reunify families,” says Torres. “What we are looking for is a better process.” Despite the climate of fear created by the recent raids, people are starting to stand up for their rights by participating in local, state and national rallies. They are also getting the immigrant/migrant side of the story out to the media, government officials and lawmakers.
“The important thing is individual people are coming and speaking out,” says Torres.
One of the things Centro is pushing for is fair working conditions. In some cases, that just means getting enforcement of already existing laws. For example, Minnesota law requires that employers provide health insurance for migrant workers. The law was passed but regulations were never written. So companies have pretty much ignored it. “The laws are there, but they are kind of pointless,” says Torres.
In April, the organization hosted the first National Farmworker Conference for Fair Trade in Owatonna. A major victory came in this area when it was announced this spring that the fast food giant McDonald’s would work with one of Centro’s allies, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, in dealing with wage and working condition issues in Florida’s tomato industry.
Fair trade rules are becoming a staple of “green” certification labels in an attempt to make sure food that’s produced in an environmentally sound manner also doesn’t come at the cost of human dignity. For example, Food Alliance Midwest, the sustainable certification system founded by LSP and Cooperative Development Services, has a set of criteria related to safe and fair working conditions for farmworkers.
The criteria give farms high points if they offer such things as protection for farmworker children, grievance procedures and support services. The criteria also cover sanitation, housing and employee benefits. (For more on these criteria, see www.foodalliance.org/certification/ standards.htm.) Such fair trade rules are key if groups like Centro Campesino are to deal with a contentious issue in rural areas: how industrial ag has benefited from exploiting a seemingly bottomless pool of cheap labor. As long as workers are unable to get better conditions, wages won’t improve, giving factory farms and large processors an advantage in their race to the bottom, and keeping economic development in rural areas at poverty levels.
The damage a cheap labor economy inflicts upon all members of a rural community could actually help unite rural residents, no matter what their ethnic background, nationality or circumstances of arrival. When Torres speaks before local schools and service organizations about these issues, he finds people are often surprised at what they have in common with newer residents.
“People have stereotypes about migrants. People have stereotypes about year-around Latino workers,” he says. “I think people are surprised when they learn these workers want the same things everyone does: a good job and a chance to improve things for their families.”