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New Faces, New Futures

Immigrants, women change Michigan farming

March 9, 2007 | By Julie Hay
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

J. Carl Ganter/with-these-hands.com
  Leo Ocanas, a Mexican immigrant, worked for three decades as a farm hand before buying an orchard near Traverse City.

There is an ease in his heavily accented voice. Neither his accent nor his modesty, though, masks the smile in Leo Ocanas’s voice when he speaks about the Hispanic tradition in farming.

“The legend of the Hispanic people is work. Our ambitions come from farm labor,” Mr. Ocanas said recently. “It’s in the blood of migrants since they were little. We love farming because that’s all we know.”    

Mr. Ocanas’s life perfectly illustrates his words. As a youngster, he came to the United States from Mexico with his family, his green card, and a readiness to harvest crops. Three decades, countless farms, and thousands of miles later, he became a U.S. citizen. He used $29,000 he had somehow saved while working for farm laborer wages as a down payment on 22 acres of farmland on Traverse City’s Old Mission Peninsula. Today he owns the largest apple orchard on the peninsula.

But Mr. Ocanas’s story also illustrates a brand-new phenomenon: the face of American agriculture is changing. While Mexicans form the largest group of what’s come to be called “new farmers,” others are also spurring the transformation—immigrants from Asia and Europe, women, retirees, even baby boomers looking for new careers. Together, these newcomers are gradually recasting the image of American farmers.

Many are helping to change how farming is done, too. Some use more labor-intensive, sustainable farming methods; some engage in community-supported agriculture, selling season-long shares of their produce to a limited list of customers; and ever more are tapping into local markets whenever they can.

These changes, particularly the demographic ones, are resonating in Michigan, which lost 300,000 acres of farmland between 1997 and 2002—most of it to commercial and residential development. During that same period, the number of Hispanics who own farmland grew by 163 percent, while the number of women owning farms grew by 20 percent. In other words, immigrant and female farmers are helping to maintain agriculture as Michigan’s second-largest industry, even as many of them are changing it, too.

Hard-won Progress
New farmers’ success is hard-won, however, according to Steve Fouch, director of the Benzie County Michigan State University Extension office. He sees agriculture’s new faces and forms confronting some formidable obstacles.

“Getting started in farming is difficult,” Mr. Fouch said. “The equipment is expensive and land around here is very valuable because it is priced according to its development, not agricultural, potential.  When you have a Benzie County fruit orchard overlooking Crystal Lake, it’s not $500 an acre.”

That explains why so many new farmers are inventing ways to turn a profit while using less land. They employ direct marketing techniques like farmer’s markets, roadside stands, and subscription-like operations, called “community supported agriculture” or CSA, in which customers pay ahead for a season’s worth of fresh food. They also plant new, value-added crops like wine grapes, and they circumvent agriculture’s traditional large-scale, anonymous markets. For example, instead of shipping Jonagold, Honeycrisp, and Braeburn apples to the applesauce factory, which pays low prices, many of these small farms now sell those increasingly sought-after apple varieties to retailers or consumers and get a much better price.

These innovative and enterprising farms are a big reason Michigan has seen an increase in the number of smaller acreage farms; those with less than 99 acres gained a five percent share of the total from 1997 to 2002 and now represent more than 60 percent of all Michigan farms.

A Woman’s Work
Traci Cruz owns one of those smaller farms. Ms. Cruz grew up on a farm in Michigan’s Thumb, where most farms are very large and produce in bulk for distant markets. This wife, mother of two, and full-time legal secretary runs the 10-acre Big Belly Farm, near Empire, a village along Lower Michigan’s northwest coastline.

She bought that farm in 2002 and quickly began planting crops using what she describes as “eco-friendly” farming methods. Today Ms. Cruz grows a variety of fruits and vegetables and sells them at the local farmers market. She usually runs a CSA, too, but is taking this year off to be fully involved in the events surrounding her oldest daughter’s high school graduation, which will happen during the planting season.  

Ms. Cruz, who is happy to see the face of Michigan farming becoming more inclusive, hopes equipment manufacturers will take notice, too, and design more appropriately sized tools and equipment.

“I have a tractor, but I’m not big enough to shift gears,” the petite Ms. Cruz said with a laugh. “The clutch is designed for a 250 pound man.” She said the same is true for other farm tools, including the backpack sprayer she uses for pest management.

Keeping the Connection Alive
Another woman new to farming is Jill Johnson, one of the small but growing number of people who leave successful urban careers in favor of working the land. Three years ago, Ms. Johnson walked away from her marketing job, cashed in her retirement account, and started Crane Dance Farm.

Located in Middleville, a community near Grand Rapids, Crane Dance Farm specializes in grass-fed, heirloom livestock. Together, Ms. Johnson and her partner raise all sorts of animals on 45 acres of land—including some property owned by their neighbors. They use sustainable farming practices that, they say, help protect genetic diversity in the food chain.

Ms. Johnson readily acknowledged that her commitment to non-traditional farming practices is costly, labor intensive, and, frequently, an uphill battle. But she said it is worth it because she feels that she is doing the right thing for the environment and her community.

Ms. Johnson shrugged off questions about working in such a male-dominated business. She said her biggest challenge is economic—staying in business by selling to local markets in an agricultural system that’s now obsessed with global distribution. For example, she said, new state legislation requiring high-tech livestock tagging will cost her business about $5,000—a huge sum for such a small operation, and for something that is really meant to protect consumers from the things that can go wrong in extremely large livestock operations.

“It would be nice to have laws that were more conducive to a local food economy,” she said.

Despite such challenges, she still enjoys doing her endless list of chores: grinding feed, taking care of baby pigs, preparing goods for the weekly Grand Rapids farmer’s market, working with the new, local, online food co-op. She said that the enthusiasm of her customers for her products, and her sense of doing what is right are what push her and her partner, Mary, to innovate and stay competitive.

“For us, it’s two women trying to make a difference by taking care of people, and feeding people healthy food,” Ms. Johnson said. “Without that, it would be really difficult to work this hard. But we like that connection.” 

Clearly, Ms. Johnson sees farming as a calling, one that she hopes more young farmers will heed: “The average age of farmers around here is 60. That’s not a good place for us to be as a country. We need young farmers. We’re losing farmland like crazy and with that we’re losing knowledge of the land that farmers are taking with them.” 

In particular, Ms. Johnson feels that Michigan needs to take a hard look at its current trend of turning farmland into subdivisions.

“We’ve got maybe 20 years before that land is all developed, because that’s what we seem to do in Michigan,” she warned. “With livestock, it’s important to get some small sustainable, grass-based farms going. It’s a lot more sustainable than one house per acre.”

Julie Hay is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Leelanau County policy specialist. Reach her at julie@mlui.org.
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