“I love farming so much. Even though I’ve farmed all day long, when I go home and lay down my head I dream about farming,” a Hmong farmer told us her story about immigrating to Minnesota and why she continues to farm. She longs for her three grown sons to join her in the fields but they have chosen more financially rewarding careers. Her friends tell her maybe her sons will decide to farm when they get bigger. “I don’t think they are going to get any bigger,” she joked.
Over the weekend at the 9th Immigrant and Minority Farmers Conference we heard many stories about immigration, family, struggle, and triumph. The annual conference brings together farmers, educators, sponsors, and people like me who do what we can to support our farming community. There are two days of breakout sessions, storytelling, and networking. Farmers learn about and share best practices for farming in the Midwest: sustainability; selling at markets, to restaurants, and CSAs; buying land.
The stories keep me coming back each year. I hear stories about cross cultural struggles and generational issues. I hear stories of people who come from countries where farmers are respected because their role feeding the community is seen as important. This year I was determined to ask the farmers why they farm. Why would anyone work so hard for so little money?
Sunday morning’s keynote speaker, National Immigrant Farmers Initiative Director and cofounder Rigoberto Delgado, spoke about the importance of immigrant and refugee farmers and farm workers to rural development. More than one acre of American farmland is lost every minute of every day (mainly due to unsound development practices). Nearly half of principle farm operators will retire in the next ten years. There are troubling food safety issues especially with imported products. Where will Americans get their food in the coming years?
Seventy percent of farm workers are born abroad. Most never own their own land. Those who speak English may speak with a heavy accent. Yet they bring valuable farming expertise and are willing to learn new systems. They need support, training, and social justice. They are not always welcomed into tight-knit rural communities where newcomers are viewed with suspicion and prejudice.
With all of these struggles on top of already difficult farming circumstances what motivates the farmers who gathered together this weekend? One farmer said his gardening was at first a hobby, and that eventually he saw it as a career opportunity. Many farmers claimed they had no other skills (Anyone who has attempted to plant a small garden can only pretend to understand what kind of knowledge it takes to farm. A farmer must be gifted in math, science, history, economics, physical education.). I listened to urban farmers describe how one tiny plot grew into multiple gardens and an organized community of neighbors determined to bring healthy food into their lives. Over and over again I heard stories about how farming keeps families together, with children learning important lessons and skills from their elders. Several farmers told me that they thrive on the independence that farming provides. Parents are often motivated to control the purity of the food they grow and consume.
Regina M. Laroche of Diaspora Arts on Madeline Island spoke about the seeds we plant. As she shared her story she echoed a common them of the weekend: our stories originate from how we gather, grow, and share our food. Food connects us. We plant our seeds and dream of what shall grow.