Jesse Larios was rambunctious as a youngster growing up in California’s Imperial Valley, so his mother would send him off with his father to work with cattle at a local feedlot.
“I just didn’t want to be home, so my mother would say, ‘Go with your father,’” he said.
It didn’t take long for the young Larios to develop a love for animals and agriculture, and after earning a college degree, he became a second-generation employee at the Foster Feed Yard in Brawley, Calif.
Now 45 and the company’s manager, Larios and his wife, Briana, also raise and show their own beef cattle and goats, which they market throughout the Southwest.
“I was born into it,” said Larios, whose family emigrated from Mexico when he was 2 months old. “As a young man, I grew up wanting to be a cowboy.”
Larios’ up-by-the-bootstraps experience typifies the increasing ethnic diversity within America’s farming population, as more and more Latinos, American Indians, Asian-Americans, African Americans and those who identify with more than one race own and operate farms and ranches.
Nationwide, the number of Spanish, Hispanic or Latino-owned farms ballooned from 55,570 in 2007 to 67,014 in 2012, according to the USDA’s latest Census of Agriculture. American Indians remained the nation’s second-largest nonwhite group with 37,857 principal operators, up from 34,706 five years previous, according to a census summary released Feb. 20.
Growers of Asian descent numbered 13,699 in the 2012 survey, 4,820 of which were in California. That’s up from 11,214 and 3,684, respectively, in 2007, the government reported.
In all, 8 percent of the nation’s 2.1 million principal farm operators are minorities.
The growing diversity is evident when looking at the faces of vendors at America’s burgeoning farmers’ markets, said Bob Young, an economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation.
“These efforts that the USDA has had and others have had in promoting diversity have paid off in those numbers, or they seem to be paying off,” Young said.
Among Hispanic-owned farms, most earn less than $50,000 a year, but together they generated more than $8.6 billion in crop value in 2012, up from $6.6 billion five years earlier. A slight majority of Hispanic farmers lists other jobs as their primary occupation.
For many, their stories are similar to that of the Larios family — they started as farmworkers and saved enough money to buy or lease some land and start their own operations.
From worker to owner
Adrian Renteria, 57, ran across the U.S-Mexico border near Tijuana with a couple other young men in 1974 when he was 17 years old. From a farming family, he “just wanted to know the United States, a bigger world” and make some money.
He worked his way north and ended up in Orondo, Wash., north of Wenatchee, where he settled into orchard work — pruning, thinning and picking apples, pears and cherries.
“I was a fast worker and helped everybody, whoever needed work,” he says.
He married a local woman, gaining his green card and later U.S. citizenship.
Renteria became a foreman, saved his money and in 1989 bought his first semi-truck and worked as a truck driver. A year later, he bought a 21-acre orchard in the Palisades near Wenatchee. He owned 43 acres before losing part of it when apple prices tanked in the late 1990s.
Recently, he sold the rest of his orchard and bought two homes and nine acres of cherry orchard on the south edge of East Wenatchee. He and a hired hand do the pruning and he still hires out his trucking services.
“For me it’s been easy to do all that stuff because I’ve been a farmer since I remember,” he says.
Some immigrants sold land in their home countries to afford to farm here, said Navid Khan, deputy agricultural commissioner in Butte County, Calif. Khan is a third-generation rice and walnut grower whose family emigrated in the 1920s from the Punjabi region of what is now Pakistan.
Khan’s great-uncle, Kalu Khan, initially worked for other farmers and ranchers in the ’20s while scraping together enough money to buy a plot in nearby Glenn County. Khan credits his uncle, Tariq Khan, for building the business before recently dying of cancer.
“He embodied the can-do attitude,” Khan said of his uncle. “He built it from the ground up.”
While farm ownership is becoming more diverse, the increases reflected in the census may also be partly the result of greater efforts by the National Agricultural Statistics Service over the past decade to find and count historically underrepresented growers, spokeswoman Sue King acknowledged.
The effort began in earnest with the 2007 census, and the agency built on its relationships with various ethnic groups to encourage responses to the 2012 census, too, King said.
In addition, the University of California Cooperative Extension touted the census to Latino, Hmong, Mien, Chinese and other ethnic farmers during food safety courses, said Shermain Hardesty, who leads the small farm program at UC-Davis.
Help to succeed
The government’s efforts on behalf of ethnic farmers go beyond merely trying to count them all. Scores of extension service and other programs exist to help fledgling growers succeed.
In one case, some farmworkers-turned-produce growers along the California coast were struggling to meet input costs, so the UC Extension has been helping them plant additional varieties that are harvested during non-peak seasons, enabling the growers to get higher prices, Hardesty said.
The Imperial Valley’s Larios remembers that as children, he and his friends developed negative attitudes toward farming because they saw their parents working long hours for little pay.
“We never saw the opportunities of managerial positions,” he said.
That changed when he went to California State University-Fresno, where he earned a degree in economics. Many of his classmates were also Hispanic, he said.
“I used to have horse blinders on me, and all of the sudden my eyes were opened up to the opportunities not only in livestock but in agriculture,” Larios said.
“There have been many opportunities for me,” he said. “I think the opportunities have always been there, and now that some ag leaders have been more noticeable, I think the next generation of Hispanics are noticing there are opportunities out there. We’ll see more and more Hispanics getting involved.”
Capital Press staff writer Dan Wheat contributed to this report.