Javier Garcia starts the green John Deere tractor and slowly moves it forward toward the rows of onions and squash. The blades behind the tractor dig into the soil, uprooting weeds and turning the earth as it goes.
Garcia is one of a small but growing number of Latino farmers in Minnesota. According to the agricultural census, Minnesota is home to about 112,000 farmers. Of those, 650 identify as Hispanic or Latino.
Garcia arrived to the U.S. in 1993 from his home in the Mexican state of Michoacán. Like many who immigrate here, he was looking for a better life.
As he talks about being a farmer, the wind blows against the battered remains of one of the greenhouses. It was partially demolished by a tornado that touched down weeks earlier.
“I never imagined I would own land here. But it’s given me the motivation (to keep going) because in Mexico we didn’t have land where we could grow crops,” Garcia says.
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Garcia now owns 54 acres in Long Prairie, Minn., That’s the equivalent of roughly 54 football fields.
This year’s crop includes rows of onion, Roma tomatoes and zucchini.
Inside one of the greenhouses, Garcia uses a hoe to clear weeds between the rows of habanero and poblano peppers. He admits having had different plans for the crops this year.
“The weather was very drastic this year. I had hoped to plant sections of one vegetable. But it wasn’t possible,” he says.
The largest section is dedicated to honeydew melons. He has a contract to sell the melons to schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The rows of honeydews will yield 13 pallets weighing 700 pounds each.
Of the 54 acres, only about nine are being used.
Although he owns and farms his land, Garcia still works at the dairy — full-time in the winter and part-time during the farming season — in order to make ends meet.
When it’s time to harvest, his adult children and grandchildren all pitch in. But he admitted, he also gets some unwanted help.
“The deer also help us harvest. I don’t like it, but what can I do,” Garcia says.
The deer show up and feast on the melons just as they ripen. Garcia will stay out until 11 p.m. or midnight guarding the crop.
“But they surprise me. I leave and they show up at dawn when I’m home sleeping,” Garcia says with a laugh.
In Mexico, his experience with agriculture was limited to raising corn. Growing vegetables and other types of crops was something completely new when he began 10 years ago.
After working several years harvesting crops in California’s Central Valley followed by landscaping work in Los Angeles, Garcia moved to Minnesota.
The idea for Agua Gorda, named after his hometown in Mexico, was planted in 2011. A group of 10 met to develop plans to form a farming cooperative. Every year, one or two men would drop out. Many left because they realized it would involve a lot of work and commitment, Garcia said. A decade later, Garcia is the only one who saw that dream bear fruit.
Latino farmers like Garcia are not common. But more and more are joining the ranks.
Up the road
Just up the road on a neighboring plot of land, sisters Alicia Lopez de Gutierrez and Yesenia Lopez Ybarra have begun their second year as farmers. Along with their husbands, they work two acres of land. Lopez de Gutierrez admitted that she convinced her sister and brother-in-law to join them in the farming venture.
Lopez de Gutierrez says she began farming on a small plot in a community garden in Long Prairie. And going from a community garden to working two acres can be challenging.
She is no stranger to farming. In Mexico, her father had crops and animals and she and her siblings had to help out.
So, when she heard of a program offered by the Latino Economic Development Corporation, she reached out.
Initially, Lopez de Gutierrez said she was interested in having a certified organic farm. But given they were barely starting out and the certification process involves a lot of work, they were advised to hold off.
“But because we didn’t have much experience, we were advised to give it (farming) a try and if it worked, then we could move forward with the organic certification,” Lopez de Gutierrez says.
Elizabeth Montesinos walks along the rows of crops at the family’s Santa Rosa Farm located in Arkansaw, Wis. She talks with the expertise of someone who has been farming her entire life. Montesinos talks about how certain areas of soil on the more than 70 acres have a higher humidity content; the complexity of being a certified organic farm; and the technique they are using so that tomato plants grow up instead of sprawling out and falling to the ground.
People mistakenly believe she runs the farm by herself.
“They ask me how a woman does this alone. I tell them I’m not alone,” Montesinos says.
The misconception arises because she attends meetings, takes the classes and does all the paperwork.
Santa Rosa is a family farm owned by her brother-in-law Carlos Tapia; her husband Alejandro Tapia and herself. They’re a team, she says.
Like Garcia at Agua Gorda, they also have other jobs. But the dream is to make the farm a main source of income.
Surviving on farming alone is difficult, Carlos Tapia says.
“The first year, I tried farming full-time, but financially it didn’t work out. So, I have a full-time job and we do this (farming) part-time,” Tapia says .
Adds Montesinos, “A farm doesn’t provide enough for you to support yourself or to pay your bills.”
The family bought the farm — located about an hour and 20 minutes from St. Paul, four years ago. That was also when Carlos and his family moved from California to Minnesota.
Elizabeth and Alejandro live in St. Paul with their children. It’s also where they have their roofing business.
But every weekend the entire family heads to the farm.
Being a family farm means everyone works — including Hunter, the black, blockhead lab. Hunter is always nearby, Montesinos says.
Wild animals — including bears — live in the area. And Hunter’s job is security.
When they are on the ATVs, Hunter is with them, usually out front.
“When we see him stop in front of the ATV and begin barking, we have to stop because he is seeing an animal or some other sort or danger,” Montesinos says.
The family also has a one-year-old chocolate lab, who is still learning the ropes. Hansel is una traviesa, Montesinos says. In other words, she gets into trouble.
And as if on cue, Hansel goes over to the wild ducks. She attempts to check them out by sniffing them. The ducks angrily show their displeasure.
The youngest family members, Montesinos’ son Emiliano and her nephews Rafael and Carlos, all pre-teens, also help out.
“They come out on the ATVs to where we are and ask if we want water or soda,” Montesinos says.
Like all farmers they deal with the elements and also with the deer who live in the adjoining forest.
The first year they planted broccoli and cauliflower near the trees. She says being new farmers they planted crops everywhere without giving it much thought.
“They (the deer) ate all of it. Deer won’t eat the entire plant, they walk and eat part of this one and go to the next one,” Montesinos says.
As a result, they couldn’t sell the crop. She learned that deer don’t like certain smells and certain crops.
They now use different crops to build a natural fort. They put garlic and onions and the corn planted for feed along the outer edges.
“You have to camouflage your vegetables,” she says.
And while the deer still get in, they don’t do as much damage.
When asked if she ever imagined she’d be an owner of a farm and working the land, Montesinos laughs.
“You know, it’s funny. In Morelos, I studied medicine. And now my dad and siblings will say, ‘you studied medicine and now you work on a farm, in the mud,’” she says.
At the mercy of the weather
Back at Agua Gorda, Garcia looks to the future. He plans to add livestock that he can sell. And plant nut trees. And at some point, sell his produce directly to the public at a farmer’s market.
As a farmer, Garcia is at the mercy of the weather. Last year a late freeze wiped out 80 percent of the watermelons and all of the cucumbers.
After that loss, his wife, Marina Corona, asked him when enough was enough. Garcia had a somewhat philosophical answer.
“I’m content with what’s left, and I keep moving forward,” Garcia says. “Don’t give up, because those who give up, lose.”
Vicki Adame covers Minnesota’s Latino communities for MPR News via Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues and communities.