Director of Training Salvador Miranda reflects on the road to building economic equity with Minnesota’s Latino community, and how that history is paving the way to future development. Part II of a two-part story. Read Part I here.
Recently I visited with an emerging leader from a rural region who is joining others in an immigrant farmer cooperative and working out of the new East Side Enterprise Center with LEDC.
Building on the historic lessons of the Mercado Central, Plaza Latina and the cooperative model, LEDC staff and leaders began organizing in Long Prairie – St. Cloud region and creating a presence in the south with the Willmar Area Multicultural Marketplace (WAMM). As in the metro region, immigrant families and workers are finding work and opportunities in greater Minnesota. WAMM became a center for micro business development and the Latino Academy Teocalli Tequiotl OIC. In Long Prairie, immigrant Latino farmers formed the Agua Gorda Cooperative and created a partnership with La Loma Restaurant with many locations in the Twin Cities. Tons of organic tomatillos and chilies grown at the farm and are purchased by La Loma – a very productive partnership!
Since the early 2000’s, with the resources provided by a Rural Cooperative Development grant from the USDA, LEDC has been able to work with the immigrant Latino farmers in creating the structure of the cooperatives. Farmers are coming together, pooling their resources, relationships and markets: spreading the work load.
In 2007, LEDC advanced the focus of the agriculture development work from workers to owners. They connected the Latino farmers of the Agua Gorda cooperative, the Cala Farms, owned by Rodrigo Cala and his brother in Turtle Lake Wisconsin and La Familia Cooperative in New Richland Minnesota, which has six farmers. More than 30 Latino farmers and two white owned farms have formed the Shared Ground Cooperative. LEDC is in discussion with Latino farmers in southern Minnesota to bring them into the cooperative, as well. The Shared Ground Cooperative serves as a marketing and distribution cooperative for its members. LEDC insures the Latino farmers participate fully in the operations of the Cooperative.
Another emerging cooperative in rural Minnesota is the Manos Latinos Cooperative in Owatonna, using land connected to Riverland Community College. This effort is being led by Victor Conteras, former Executive Director of Centro Campesino. The Conteras family is a long time Owatonna family, who own a bi-lingual tax service, (Servicios Contreras) for the Latino families in southern Minnesota. Victor is working with Latino farmers in New Richland (La Familia) and Surena Cooperative, another emerging Latino farmer led cooperative in Austin, Minnesota. The produce they are growing is free from pesticides and all the work is done by hand with no equipment. They have a strong commitment to sustainable farming and preserving the quality of the land.
Victor points out the barriers Latino farmers face are access to documentation and the high costs of agricultural farm land, which is why they are pooling resources to have access to the land. Breaking into the market and distribution centers of produce is another challenge when they are competing with lower cost produce from other countries. To overcome these challenges Manos Latinos Cooperative is coming together with LEDC and the Shared Ground Cooperative to identify ways to minimize operational costs, connect with more community based markets and community owned restaurants and grocery stores.
Shared Ground Cooperative consists of these farmers – producers united around a common set of goals. A core objective is a commitment to make environmentally sustainable farming a living wage opportunity for those who chose to pursue it, especially people of color and immigrants. Shared Ground and LEDC view the marketing and farm skills training as a strategy for social justice; a way for immigrant farmers to overcome structural barriers, earn a stable sustaining income, and access training and leadership skills through this member-owned and member governed enterprise.
At a new site in East St. Paul, LEDC has staff at the Eastside Enterprise Center working on building the leadership and structure of Latino farmers within the Shared Ground Cooperative. There are 12 partners at the site advancing economic development, access to capital and equipment and marketing strategy for the Latino and Hmong farmers.
This model – forming an immigrant farmer led cooperative was a catalyst in the creation of the Hmong American Farmers Association and the HAFA farm in the Hastings Vermillion region .Farming for the Hmong community is part of their history and tradition in their home country. HAFA’s mission is to advance the economic, social and cultural prosperity of the Hmong farmers in Minnesota through economic development, capacity building, advocacy and research.
The HAFA farm is a 155 acre research and incubator farm in Vermillion Township. HAFA sub-leases the land to small family farmers and maintains a demonstration plot to teach farmers to be better farmers, business operators and stewards of the environment. HAFA is closely connected to the growing Hmong markets, restaurants and public markets emerging in the Twin Cities and across Minnesota.
In a recent conversation with Ramon Leon, Executive Director of LEDC, he shared stories of how this fast growing immigrant farmers’ cooperative movement is building. He shared how a $4000 loan for seed, and three acres became forty-seven acres of land – used to grow organic produce and create forty jobs which pay a living wage. He has been in conversation with the Minnesota Restaurant Association and the US Restaurant Association about buying local produce and investing in this economic movement. Leon is connecting with federal agencies and banks about loans to purchase more land and equipment – creating more jobs and economic growth for the families and the communities.
Given what has happened in the Minnesota economy from the micro- entrepreneur development work of the 1990’s and now building the movement to include our rural communities, it is accurate to state that the immigrant investment in Minnesota has been powerful and will be sustaining for years to come.
More than the economic benefits for Minnesota are the environmental impacts. I’ve been reading reports about the decline in water quality in Southern Minnesota from pollution by corporate farms and their pesticide run-offs; massive amounts of manure sitting and poisoning the air quality for their neighbors. That is not the rural Minnesota of our future. This state began in the mid 1880’s with policies and programs to give settlers access to the land. Now it is time again for public and financial support of these farmers and their families as they plant their roots in our rural community and continue the legacy of land stewardship. Now is the time to remove barriers to their economic investment in Minnesota. One of the most politicized barriers we all face is the existing immigration policies and the political rhetoric about the immigrants in our community. It continues to divide our community.
As I was listening to the stories of how this rural farming organizing is moving forward, it came to mind that these new immigrant farmers are growing fresh organic produce and selling it to the growing immigrant businesses: restaurants, grocery stores, etc. that resulted from the asset based community organizing work of the entrepreneurs from the Sagrado Corazon community. It is a full circle – creating a rural – urban connection and creating food justice and economic power.