Latino Farmers Remember Their Roots
By MIKE KILEN
Benigno Lopez smoothly swings the machete and, whoosh, tall grasses are laid flat on the garden’s border. He takes another fluid swing and another, until his wife grows impatient.
Ramona Lopez yells and whoops in the distance to summon visitors to her side.
“Come look at my peppers!”
“And look at these!”
“Most of the time, I’m not as happy as my husband. But this year, when I come and see my peppers …,” she calls out, finishing the sentence with a look of adoration.
Benigno, who people call Bernie, and Ramona grew up in Jalisco, Mexico, but left behind farm life 13 years ago to move to the United States.
They worked in the meat-packing plant in Marshalltown, became citizens and hoped to one day grow food again.
Now they have a plot of land and are harvesting, thanks to a continuing education program to develop new farmers that heavily taps into Marshalltown’s Latino population.
“Take it,” Ramona says, shoving a green tube of something-or-another at the visitor. “Take it!”
OK, but what is it?
A Mexican yellow squash called a calabacita. Slice it, put it on the grill with a little seasoned salt, she said. Oh, the taste!
Just the day before, as August waned and the vegetables hung ripe with promise, she had a party and served them. It was a special evening in a season of growth.
Years ago, the couple planted a peach tree in their yard and others said it wouldn’t grow. But fruit appeared, not every year, but enough to maintain hope that new ideas, new people, could prosper here.
Bernie’s father and grandfather grew peaches, mangos, oranges and avocados on their farm.
“Bernie is very happy to work outside. Works 10, 12 hours a day,” Ramona said.
Ramona works at Iowa Home Care, visiting the sick and elderly in their homes, then comes out to see her peppers, which grow on plots at Marshalltown Community College.
Its Entrepreneurial and Diversified Agriculture Program (EDA) led an adult education class last winter, “Start Your Own Diversified Farm,” whose goal is to help people learn to farm and contribute to the local food economy.
In looking for farmers in Marshalltown, a town long populated with Latino immigrants, it made sense to tap into their willingness and expertise.
A survey of 111 Mexican and Central American immigrants in Marshalltown and Denison by Iowa State’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, which paid tuition for the class, discovered that 83 percent grew up on farms and 93 percent wanted to farm, although buying or leasing land was an obstacle.
A third of the 18 students in the eight-week bilingual class were Latino, joining Anglos, American Indians and Sudanese.
“We always ate. It seemed important that we eat together to help us integrate,” said Linda Barnes, the EDA program coordinator. “The thing we learned is so much of it is about relationships. The reason that is true is we are talking about food.”
Bernie and Ramona helped recruit Latinos, earned certificates from the class in March and joined a dozen who planted plots in the spring.
Some grew excited on the first warm April day and made the mistake of planting early.
Bernie waited until May 5. He had experience, working on a ranch in Mexico. “Never with a tractor but with an ox,” he says. “Old fashioned.”
“He use a tiller here,” his wife adds. “I’m happy for Bernie to use a tiller.”
Just then Norm McCoy, the farm manager of the college’s 80 acres, suggests Bernie may benefit from a weed eater to tackle his chore.
He smiles. New Iowans with unusual ideas like peach trees wisely take some advice from the natives.
It’s a longtime dream. While working at the packing plant, a job she didn’t like, Ramona began attending farmer’s meetings.
“I would go home and look in dictionary what they say. I realized the problems same for farmers everywhere,” she said.
The main challenge for new farmers is money to buy land. But students can establish three years of growing history here, which most lenders require to buy land.
All they want is a few acres, just enough to grow fruits and vegetables and raise a few cows, chickens and sheep to sell to local customers and restaurants.
Claudia Prado-Meza saw the same hunger while talking to traditional Iowa farmers.
“They miss growing food that they know where it goes,” said the Iowa State graduate student in sustainable agriculture, who helps the Marshalltown farmers. “But they are trapped inside subsidized systems.”
Latino farmers remember their farming roots.
“To hear (Ramona) gush about the potential for growing vegetables is like the embodiment of the American dream,” said John Paulin of Prairie Rivers Resource Conservation and Development.
“But the institutional knowledge of growing truck crops has disappeared.”
Paulin hopes the college program, which became part of an effort carrying the acronym for food in Spanish – COMIDA (County Of Marshall Investing in Diversified Agriculture) – helps connect local farmers and buyers.
Only one-tenth of a percent of Marshall County residents get food directly from farmers, a fourth of the national average. If consumers bought 15 percent, according to a study by Ken Meter of the Crossroads Resource Center in Minnesota, $8 million of new farm income would be generated in the county.
So they are trying to grow farmers in Marshall County, dreamers like Ramona and Bernie.
Ramona steers her truck past the rows of white corn for tortillas, tomato plants and twisting vines of melons.
It hasn’t been an easy growing summer with early cool weather and college land that hasn’t built up enough organic materials yet. Still, the group gathers enough produce to sell at the Downtown Farmers Market in Des Moines, in McCoy’s Pine Crest Farm stand.
She is chomping on a just-picked cucumber and had few complaints.
“This place is the future for new people,” she says. “We raise seven kids here, three still at home. Marshalltown open the doors to us. We need to do something to give back to the community.”
Adept at translating, Ramona helps recruit immigrants interested in farming while working to save money to buy land.
Her husband, she says, is never so happy as when he can stop to donate garden items at Helping Hands Temporary Services for the less privileged.
She pulls her truck up to the plot of Jorge Ibarra, a 35-year-old construction worker and father of five who learned to farm from his grandfather in Mexico.
“I like to be farmer,” he says. “I lived on a farm. I like the life.”
He begins filling up boxes of his sweet corn to give away.
Like Ramona, he wants to return something.
As the Iowa sun sets over the standing corn, visitors take home the corn and calabacita to put on the grill, as Ramona instructed.
She also cooked the squash the day before at a party for her daughter Jacqeline, the first in her family to ever leave for college. They ate it near the peach tree in Iowa.