This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and funded by the Walton Family Foundation. Wisconsin Watch is a member of the network. Sign up for our newsletter to get our news straight to your inbox.
With dirt crunching under his feet, Max Chavez trekked across his 10 acres of land, grasping wooden stakes in his hands. They were marked with his handwriting: “Bell pepper” on one, “green beans” on another. Every few paces, he stuck a stake in the soil — marking where his harvest would sprout months later.
Chavez grew up farming in Mexico. He moved to California at 13 years old, and then to Iowa in 1999. After planting and pruning grapevines around the state, he saved enough money to rent land, growing tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and more.
When asked what it takes to run his farm in Carlisle, named Sunny Valley Vegetables, 55-year-old Chavez had a quick response: “Money.”
Between record-high farm production expenses and declining farm income, producers are facing higher financial burdens than ever before.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is there to help. Most farmers receive some sort of support from the USDA — from cash subsidies for commercial farmers to microloans for small-scale farmers, and conservation services to crop insurance. The department shells out billions of dollars a year for such resources.
But, like many other immigrant farmers and ranchers in the United States, it’s hard for Chavez to access — or even find out about — those opportunities. He said he’s still waiting on funding from the USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program that he was approved for, which would help him purchase needed equipment and materials.
Max Chavez, a farmer and immigrant from Mexico, surveys his land as he decides where to plant this years crops on Tuesday, April 25, 2023, at his farmland in Carlisle, Iowa. Markers are placed in order to organize planting. Chavez, along with many other immigrant non-native English speakers in the agricultural and ranching community, has struggled to receive grants, loans and other funding opportunities. (Geoff Stellfox / The Gazette)
“I don’t believe in them anymore,” he said of the USDA. “If I don’t have that money, how am I going to feed the people?”
The USDA has made steps toward increasing accessibility for historically underserved producers, including immigrant farmers and ranchers. But producers and advocates say it’s not enough. They want more solutions included in the forthcoming Farm Bill to level the playing field.
Samuel Patiño, 74, grew up in the Mexican countryside, where his family grew corn, green beans and other produce. He moved to the U.S. in 1973 and started farming 16 years ago. He now owns 21 acres of land in southwestern Missouri, raising livestock, poultry and produce.
Patiño only discovered the USDA around 2014. But he hasn’t successfully applied for farm operating loans or funding for a new fence. He said that’s due to the language barriers he faces: Patiño can understand basic information in English, but not anything technical related to farming — including how to apply to USDA programs.
Even for producers proficient in English, applying for USDA resources isn’t simple. Applicants must decipher what programs they’re eligible for and then navigate through a series of steps to be approved. They need to provide the correct paperwork — which could mean years of data to keep track of. Some even hire grant writers for assistance.
Working through the maze grows even more difficult when the forms and their instructions aren’t in a producer’s native language.
“Sometimes, I feel that we are ignored,” Patiño said in Spanish. “We sometimes get stuck because we don’t communicate very well.”
Language barriers are among the biggest challenges for immigrant producers, said Eleazar Gonzalez, a small sustainable farm state extension specialist at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. Since 2011, he has worked with Latino farmers — including Patiño, whom he helped secure funds for a small greenhouse — to improve their agribusiness literacy, profitability and access to USDA programs.
Most immigrant producers don’t have a college education; many didn’t finish high school, Gonzalez said. So their literacy is limited — especially in English. That makes successfully applying to USDA programs difficult: Applicants may not understand the requirements necessary to qualify, like keeping records of transactions, nor the intensive paperwork.
To add to the difficulty, most USDA applications and materials are only available in English. Translations may be available only upon request to the local USDA service center. As a result, many immigrant producers don’t fundamentally understand how USDA programs work.
“They don’t have the knowledge and information to access the resources,” Gonzalez said.
The language barriers work both ways: English-speaking USDA representatives have trouble building relationships with immigrant producers.
Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern is a senior research associate and associate professor at Syracuse University. While researching for her book — “The New American Farmer,” published in 2019 — she met with local USDA offices and staffers in several states around the country. Only one had a Spanish speaker. The other offices acknowledged barriers to communicating with immigrant producers.
“The USDA is limited, especially in terms of funding and outreaching to farmers that aren’t reaching out to them,” Minkoff-Zern said.
Failed efforts leave many immigrant producers discouraged, said Filiberto Villa-Gomez, a research associate at Michigan State University and the Spanish-speaking outreach coordinator for Michigan Food and Farming Systems.
He has worked with hundreds of Latino farmers in Michigan for about 15 years, connecting them with USDA representatives to promote applicable programs and application resources. But even with his help, producers aren’t frequently successful.
“When the farmers make their applications, the representative says, ‘It’s not completed. You need this, this and this.’ The people go back to the farm … and they don’t come in again,” he said. “The people are frustrated a lot of times.”
Barriers for immigrant producers transcend language: Many still rely on cultural and agricultural habits from their home countries. Some don’t trust the government enough to ask for resources; others don’t think they need the support.
Those cultural barriers, paired with the lack of successful outreach, mean the USDA may not even be on the radar for immigrant producers. And, in turn, they make it difficult to calculate how many immigrant producers there are in the United States.
“There are a lot of (immigrant) farmers, but we don’t know where they are. They may not know what the USDA is,” Gonzalez said. “When we go to the community and talk with the farmers, that is one reality. And when you see the census data, that is another reality.”
The help that is available may not be accessible to them. Some USDA training opportunities take place during the week — when many immigrant producers are working full-time jobs.
“They don’t receive enough money to work full-time at the farm,” Villa-Gomez said. “They are hoping to get more money and live better and eat fresh fruits and products. But they must be working on the side because it’s not enough.”
Joseph Malual is a community and economic development specialist with Illinois Extension at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He originally moved to Iowa as a war refugee from South Sudan, where food and agriculture were vital parts of his upbringing.
Throughout his time in the Midwest, he has worked with Hmong, Latino, refugee and beginning farmers to overcome their barriers to agricultural resources. He said many immigrant producers are socially isolated — from both their neighbors and from local, state and federal resources.
“It’s just so hard for immigrants to be able to clearly independently liberate those resources,” he said. “They have to find some other allies.”
USDA efforts — and shortfalls
The USDA has taken several steps to help increase access for immigrant producers, said Gloria Montaño Greene.
She is the Deputy Under Secretary for the USDA Farm Production and Conservation mission area that covers the agency’s farmer-facing agencies, including the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Risk Management Agency. It oversees 2,000-plus service centers in the U.S. and its territories.
Montaño Greene said the USDA is working on translating its programs for producers in their native languages. Some of the higher-demand items, like parts of the Inflation Reduction Act and factsheets, already appear in different languages. Some items are translated on a state level.
Last year, the agency had more than 730 documents — including fact sheets, news releases, contracts and forms — translated into 30 languages. But not all USDA materials are translated.
Applications, for instance, are typically only offered in English, except for a few that have been translated into Spanish or have directions in Spanish. Translated press releases are few and far between.
The USDA also provides free interpretation services for 14 languages, including Spanish, Korean and French Canadian — the most requested, so far. Producers must go to their local USDA service center, where a staffer can make a call to an interpreter for simultaneous translation during the discussion.
As a whole, those services aren’t seeing a huge demand yet, Montaño Greene said. Last year, there were 109 interpretation calls made: 86 for the Farm Service Agency, 22 for the Natural Resources Conservation Service and one for the Risk Management Agency.
The USDA is trying to promote them to customers and employees to increase use.
“I know that’s not the most perfect solution, but it also does help with a language barrier,” Montaño Greene said. “I think we’re trying to figure out how to do the language access and then complement it with our outreach and education.”
The USDA is also funneling funds to community-based organizations that can serve as trusted connections between the department and immigrant producers.
Universities can receive funding for such work through the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Its Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, for instance, supports beginning producers in the U.S. and allocates at least 5 percent of its funding to projects helping producers that are socially disadvantaged, have limited resources or are farmworkers transitioning to farming. The program helps fund Gonzalez’s work with Latino farmers in Missouri.
These steps are just the beginning, Montaño Greene said.
“We have more work to do,” she said. “I think we will always have work to do.”
Maximino Perez knows the barriers for immigrant producers all too well. The 52-year-old grew up on a farm in Mexico. He started his own ranch in southwestern Missouri 10 years ago and now has 20 cattle.
After a drought, he received emergency support from the USDA to buy grass and hay for his livestock. The English-speaking staffer helped Perez through the application process. But when he tried applying for similar disaster relief after an ice storm, he was rejected: He didn’t know he had to take photos of the five newborn calves that had died.
“I feel very sad because everything is about money,” Perez said in Spanish. He had to wait another year for his cattle to produce more calves.
Community organizations are pushing for USDA improvements in the forthcoming Farm Bill, which is a legislation package that is renewed every five years. It provides funding for various programs, spanning from commodities to conservation and crop insurance to rural development.
The Center for Rural Affairs is asking Congress to release non-English versions of program announcements simultaneously with English versions. It’s also asking that educational materials and program sign-up forms be available in other languages. Additionally, the center wants Congress to create a list of reliable interpreters in each state that can help producers maintain a longer-term relationship with USDA service centers.
“We want to make sure that information is baseline accessible,” said Kate Hansen, senior policy associate for the Center for Rural Affairs. “So, expanding it more fully… is actually our end goal here.”
Gonzalez said reducing the number of requirements and paperwork for USDA opportunities could make them more accessible to immigrant producers. More in-person agent-to-farmer outreach could encourage more participation, too.
As the number of farms declines while the average age of farmers creeps higher, the future of American agriculture hinges on the success of beginner producers — like immigrant farmers and ranchers. To get the support they need, producers and advocates alike say USDA accessibility must improve.
“This is one thing for economic reasons, but also socially, we want to see equity in food systems in the country,” Malual said. “Why not position immigrants who are U.S. residents and citizens to get that equity?”
Resources for immigrant producers
- Producers can find instructions for accessing USDA’s translated materials and interpretation services in their native languages at https://www.farmers.gov/translations.
- Producers can locate their local USDA service center at https://www.farmers.gov/working-with-us/service-center-locator.
- Spanish-speaking producers can email FPAC.LEP.email@example.com and CC firstname.lastname@example.org to request Spanish translations or interpretation services.
- Find a crop insurance agent who speaks a specific language using the USDA agent locator at https://prodwebnlb.rma.usda.gov/apps/AgentLocator/#/.