Assessing the Feasibility of Entry into Entrepreneurial Agriculture for Recent Immigrants in Marshalltown, Iowa

Final Report for GNC05-049

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2005: $6,891.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Grant Recipient: Iowa State University
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Jan Flora
Iowa State University
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Project Information


An exploration of Latino and Sudanese immigrant perspectives on farming reveals strong interest and a wealth of agricultural experience and skills. Many grew up on small-scale, diversified family farms. Latino respondents see access to financial capital as a major challenge to starting farming in Iowa, although homeowners are less likely to see this as a barrier. Mexican immigrant farmers interviewed own farm of about 15 acres, raise and direct-market livestock to friends and co-workers, and work full time off-farm. Agricultural organizations are not well connected to new immigrant farmers, but could usefully provide bilingual information on marketing, regulations, production, and business organization.


Latinos are the fastest growing ethnicity of farmers in Iowa and across the U.S. (National Agricultural Statistics Service 2002), and 3.7 percent of Iowa’s total population (State Data Center of Iowa 2007). Across the country, immigrants of all backgrounds are participating in training and business incubation programs geared toward their particular needs as immigrant farmers. Less than 5% of Iowa’s foreign-born population is African-born (U.S. Census 2000), yet a sizeable Sudanese community resides in Des Moines, and a few dozen families live in Marshalltown. This research considers past experience, skills and current interest in starting farming among immigrants in Iowa, as well as potential markets for their products. We also explored the experiences of four established Mexican immigrant farmers to learn how and why they became farm operators in Iowa.

Project Objectives:

The long-term goal of this project is to develop support for immigrants who want to participate as producers in Iowa’s local food systems.

Short-term goals:

1. To assess the interest in farming among Latino immigrants in Marshalltown
2. To assess potential barriers for immigrant farmers such as access to land, credit and markets, and language issues

Intermediate-term goals:

3. To foster long-term relationships between stakeholders by linking them to a common interest in immigrant participation in entrepreneurial agriculture
4. To recommend strategies for connecting new immigrant farmers to land
5. To create awareness about sustainable and entrepreneurial farming among Latino immigrants in Marshalltown


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  • Dr. Jan Flora


Materials and methods:

Research involved surveys, focus groups, and in-depth interviews. While the initial focus of the project was Marshalltown, Iowa, funds were leveraged to conduct a replicate survey among immigrant residents of Denison, Iowa. The analysis utilizes data from Marshalltown and Denison.

Survey of non-farming residents on their experience, skills, and interest in farming
The survey sampling strategy was purposive and opportunistic. I sought assistance from individuals and organizations in the local communities to reach a total of 111 Latino respondents (in Marshalltown and Denison) and 12 Sudanese respondents (in Marshalltown only). Respondents were first-generation immigrants over 18 years of age with any type of farming experience. An exception was a couple of business owners without any farming experience. I surveyed these individuals to explore the possibility that home and business owners are better poised (financially or otherwise) to start farming. Denison respondents were asked about homeownership while Marshalltown respondents were not – this question was added late to the survey. Questions about past experience with cheese making and butchering were also added late and answered only by Denison respondents, as was a five-point Likert Scale question on how strong a priority starting farming was.

In Denison, I surveyed people at: a Mexican grocery store, two churches, two different English courses, a Denison Latino Soccer League game, and through contacting persons involved in a community garden. In addition, I interviewed several small business owners by visiting their places of business. I made phone calls to a handful of people referred to me or that I found in the phone book. In Marshalltown, I reached respondents by attending four Spanish services at two different churches. For the majority of my Marshalltown surveys, I hired a local resident, originally from Mexico, who surveyed people within her own social network; these respondents are primarily from her home state of Michoacán. I used the Marshalltown survey as a vehicle to locate established Latino immigrant farmers. Interestingly, no survey respondents knew of any Latino farmers in Iowa.

To locate Sudanese survey respondents, I hired and worked with a Sudanese community leader/organizer in Marshalltown. He set up appointments in advance, accompanied me to respondents’ houses, introduced me to the respondents, and served as an interpreter when needed. I am fortunate to have been able to work with this “gatekeeper” to the Sudanese community; it was an effective, efficient way for me to reach respondents.

Focus groups

I conducted two interpreted, bilingual focus groups in Marshalltown – one was Spanish-English, the other Arabic-English. I chose people from two complementary groups: aspiring farmers and agriculture professionals. The latter were five men and women representing local and state organizations/programs dedicated to providing various types of assistance and support to beginning and established farmers in Iowa. The professionals participated in both focus groups, with a different set of three aspiring farmers in each different language group. The aspiring farmers were selected from among the 62 Marshalltown residents surveyed.

The focus groups were an applied or action research activity. They had the dual objective of learning about the goals and needs of aspiring farmers, and actually linking aspiring farmers with the people who manage resources available to farmers (the professionals). Specifically, the purpose of the focus groups was to create a space for: 1.) Aspiring farmers to discuss their goals, assets and challenges, and to learn how to connect with potential resources to begin farming; 2.) Agricultural professionals wishing to reach out and support efforts of immigrant farmers to learn about aspiring farmers’ goals, assets and concerns, to better fit their programming to these new farmers.

In-depth interviews with established farmers

Finding Latino immigrant farmers to interview was more difficult than I anticipated. Neither the Iowa National Agriculture Statistics Office (NASS) nor Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) could provide me with confidential contact information on their clients. Therefore, I put together a survey for ISU Extension, inquiring about their farming experience and access to resources, which NRCS delivered to 24 farmers with Spanish surnames who had used their services. I sent Spanish and English versions of the survey in each mailing. This survey did not lead me to Latino immigrant farmers, only a few native-born farmers with Spanish or Latino heritage.

I contacted the following organizations involved in agriculture, food systems or immigrant services for referrals to Latino immigrant farmers in Iowa:

-USDA Farm Services Agency
-NRCS, 10 district conservationists
-ISU Extension directors in the 10 Iowa counties with the highest Latino populations
-New Iowans Center, several regional offices
-Iowa Division of Latino Affairs
-Eight small, local Latino/community centers around the state, referred to me by Extension directors and others

In addition, I was referred to a county economic development director, who invited me to a meeting of Latino community leaders in a packing plant town in southeast Iowa. This group referred me to the farmer who became my first interview respondent, and the only one I found through my own search. I encountered three other respondents by chance – through my involvement in related projects, or by referral from colleagues familiar with my research. In spite of my lack of success in finding immigrant Latino farmers methodically through institutional contacts, my search is informative. It suggests that whether there are few or many first-generation Latino farmers, they are not well connected with the institutional structures that support farmers or immigrants.

Each of four interviews lasted two hours and, with respondents’ permission, was recorded. I also took notes. I conducted two interviews in Spanish assisted by a bilingual colleague and two in English on my own. All four respondents are men, and in two interviews, the respondent’s wife sat in to listen and contribute for at least part of the interview. Each interview was open-ended, guided by three themes: What is your past farm and work experience, how did you start farming in Iowa, and why do you farm? I followed up on the visits by sending language-appropriate literature on farming topics respondents had requested or I thought could be useful to them, and Census brochures given to me by NASS. I called respondents after the initial interviews for clarification and additional information. I use pseudonyms in this report to protect respondents’ identities.

Business surveys

I collaborated with a researcher hired by the Marshalltown Chamber of Commerce who was studying Latino-owned businesses at the same time I was. We wrote a survey together, hired and trained local Mexican immigrant residents to conduct the survey, and shared the data. This yielded survey data from nine restaurant or grocery store owners.

Research results and discussion:

Survey of non-farming Latino residents of Marshalltown and Denison on their experience, skills and interest in farming (n=111)

Respondents overwhelmingly (93%) want to farm. Only five stated they did not want to farm or garden in Iowa; of these, one had no previous farming experience, another had never lived on a farm and had minimal farming experience, and another wanted to return to his family in El Salvador. However, respondents do not, on average, consider farming among their highest priorities.

On a Likert scale of interest in farming from one to five, respondents (Denison data only) scored near the middle of the scale at 2.3. A score of one signifies that starting farming is a higher priority than other important life goals, while “5” indicates that the respondent would like to farm but starting farming is not a high priority and will probably not be pursued. Certain groups had scores indicating that farming is a higher than average (within the sample) priority for them. This includes men (2.1), people who intend to live locally longer (2.07), and homeowners (1.96). However, scores were not significantly different (at P<=0.05) from their counterparts (i.e. women, renters). Respondents almost invariably remember farming fondly. Several stated they liked “everything” about farming and/or there’s “nothing” they don’t like about farming. Many like specific tasks best, such as herding livestock into the mountains, planting corn, tending bees, harvesting, or “sacar el grano de la mazorca/removing kernels from the cob.” The things people didn’t like about farming involved discomfort, such as heavy lifting, working under mid-day sun, stooping over to weed, getting muddy or dirty, and carrying chilies over a sweaty shoulder and feeling a spicy pepper burn. They also disliked bad weather and low prices. The qualities of work respondents liked include: being in nature, watching things grow and being a part of that process, eating fresh foods or specific types of foods, caring for animals, and learning new things. These desirable aspects of farming come up again as reasons people want to farm in Iowa, in addition to a sense of tradition and personal connection to an agrarian way of life. Some wanted to farm to spend more time with their families or to teach their children; others said farming was simply, overall, the best way to make a living. Access to capital is the most commonly perceived barrier to starting farming (86% of respondents who want to farm). Many respondents agreed that speaking English, finding land, access to various types of insurance, and learning the technical aspects of farming in Iowa also present challenges. But some commented that these were not insurmountable, while getting the money to buy land was a significant obstacle. Some also pointed out the challenge of making long-term plans without legal immigration papers. Homeowners are more likely than non-homeowners to be longer-term local residents and to want to continue living locally for longer (Denison data only). Homeowners are less likely than non-homeowners to identify access to capital as the greatest obstacle to starting farming. Because of homeowners’ longer endurance as local residents, experience with accessing financial capital (to buy their house), and stronger than average resolve to start farming, being a homeowner seems to be an important precondition to starting farming. Other characteristics measured in relation to interest in farming are: preference to farm fulltime (instead of part-time), amount of land for farming desired, interest in farming for home consumption and/or for income. Among respondents who want to farm, 67% would prefer to farm full-time; 87% want to generate income from farming, while 74% want to farm to produce food for home consumption. Central Americans are more likely than Mexicans to want to produce food for home consumption. The average amount of land for farming in Iowa desired by respondents is 38 acres. This does not differ significantly between Mexicans and Central Americans, but does according to gender; women want 12 acres while men want 52 acres. Among respondents who want to farm, 84% want to raise livestock, 84% want to grow vegetables and/or fruits, and 64% want to produce grain; 53% want to produce livestock, vegetables/fruits and grain. Respondents in the latter group – those who favor the most production diversity (livestock, vegetables/fruit and grain) – are more likely than others to want to farm fulltime. To further explore the relation between a preference for production diversity, desire to farm fulltime, and other theoretical indicators of motivation to farm, I performed a cluster analysis. A cluster analysis is a technique for differentiating groups within a data set. Each cluster is defined in terms of its averages on a certain set of variables. Averages for the same variables are compared among the clusters. The final set of clusters is identified as the ones with the largest differences in averages among them. A cluster analysis does not show statistical significance, causal relationship, and is not conclusive. It simply suggests subgroups of respondents with similar characteristics. I looked at seven variables. These include measures of motivation to farm (desire to farm fulltime instead of part-time, amount of acreage desired, and amount of diversity desired), and demographic characteristics (gender and age). I also looked at how long respondents have lived in the U.S., and their perceptions of access to capital as a barrier. Two clusters emerged: a group of 62 people who want to farm an average of 12 acres, and a group of 13 that want an average of 78 acres. (The remaining 36 respondents do not fit into either group).
The cluster analysis suggests a pronounced ambition to farm among a subset of respondents. A profile of people in Cluster 1 (in contrast to Cluster 2) is that they:

-Want more land (78 acres) on average
-Want more types of crops (grains, livestock and vegetables/fruit)
-Want to farm fulltime (instead of part-time)
-May not see access to financial capital as the greatest challenge
-Are mostly men
-Are older (41 years) on average
-Have lived longer in the U.S. (16 years) on average

It is interesting that, in this study, a preference for growing a diverse mix of crops is related to a desire for larger acreage. By contrast, larger farms in Iowa typically have less diversity (a simple corn and soybean rotation), while smaller farms more commonly integrate various types of crops and livestock. It appears that the motivation of the 13 people in Cluster 1 to produce more kinds of crops is related to their overall ambition to farm. Those with a more apparent ambition to farm are older and have more years living in the U.S., likely because they are more settled and financially stable than those younger and newer to the U.S.

The Cluster 1 respondents scored an average of 1.7 on the Likert scale (from 1 to 5) of interest in farming (Denison data only), compared to the overall average of 2.3, suggesting that starting farming is a stronger priority for members of this group. Eight of the 13 individuals (73%) in Cluster 1 are homeowners, compared to just half of Denison respondents as a whole. This finding reinforces an earlier stated conclusion that home-ownership may be an important precondition to starting farming.

Far from being conclusive, these results point to questions for further research. For instance, follow-up interviews might be conducted with these 13 individuals in the future to see if they indeed started farming. Alternatively, research with established Latino farmers could investigate the prevalence of these characteristics as preconditions to their having started farming. For agricultural service organizations, being able to identify common paths to farming in Iowa taken by Latino immigrants will enable professionals to target outreach efforts to the people who may be best able to take advantage of such efforts. However, such knowledge could also be used to further explore and remove barriers for immigrants with different characteristics and situations.

Past experience

Most respondents (83%) grew up on farms in their native countries, while 59% have been farm workers instead of or in addition to growing up on a farm. The families of those who grew up on farms had a median acreage of 12.5 acres, usually owned by the respondents’ parents, and sometimes by their grandparents. Respondents left their family farms at an average age of 19 years.

These former farmers and farm workers had experience with a diversity of crop types. 91% percent have experience in grain production experience, 83% vegetable production, 83% livestock, and 63% fruit or nut tree production, and 51% dairy. Respondents had experience also in flowers, grapes, coffee, cotton, and sugarcane production. Half had experience that combined vegetable, grain and livestock production, reflecting production diversity in their past farming systems. Central Americans (n=20) are more likely than Mexicans (n=84) to have coffee and fruit/nut production experience, while they are equally likely to have experience in grains, vegetables, livestock, dairy, flowers and grapes. Farm workers are more likely than non-farm-workers to have vineyard/grape experience, and less likely to have dairy and fruit production experience.

Skill sets

Respondents have a wide set of agricultural skills to draw upon as farmers in Iowa. They have experience ranging from fieldwork to farm management to cheese-making and butchering livestock. Nearly all respondents with farming experience have performed some type of fieldwork (94%), including anything from planting and harvesting to weeding and pruning. The more specific kinds of work respondents have performed are: applying chemical inputs (82%), butchering animals (63% Denison data only), milking (mostly by hand) (60%), selling/marketing agricultural products (60%), and selecting and saving seeds (52%). Some respondents have experience using natural/organic (soil improvement) techniques (46%), making farm management decisions (44%), managing farm employees (38%), operating tractors (36%), making cheese (31% Denison data only), and preserving food through drying or canning (24%).

Survey of non-farming Sudanese residents of Marshalltown and Denison on their experience, skills and interest in farming (n=12)
All the Sudanese respondents grew up on a farm, and 83% want to farm today in Iowa. None are currently farming or gardening, but 58% want to garden. Like Latino respondents, a majority of Sudanese (80%) wants to grow food for home consumption, whereas only half want to produce food to sell (compared with 85% of Latinos). The emphasis among Sudanese respondents on producing for home consumption reflects the subsistence agro-pastoralist economic system of the Nuer, the second largest ethnic group of Southern Sudan (Holtzman 2000). Livestock and crop production is oriented toward household use, and although agricultural goods are sold, families don’t necessarily rely on money for daily life.

Although all Sudanese respondents raised livestock in the past (especially cattle, goats and sheep), only 40% would raise livestock on a farm in Iowa. Some stated that they want livestock, but are reluctant to take on what seems like a completely different kind of livestock production system in the U.S. Twice as many are inclined to produce vegetables and grain crops. Another difference between Sudanese and Latino respondents is that while Latinos overwhelmingly see access to capital as the greatest obstacle to starting farming, Sudanese indicated that access to land and learning new production techniques would be their greatest challenges. Just 20% of Sudanese who want to farm see access to financial capital as the greatest challenge.

Focus groups

The purpose of the focus groups was to create a space for:
1.) Aspiring farmers to discuss their goals, assets and challenges, and to learn how to connect with potential resources to begin farming;
2.) Agricultural professionals wishing to reach out and support efforts of immigrant farmers to learn about aspiring farmers’ goals, assets and concerns, to better fit their programming to these new farmers. There were two focus groups – one with Sudanese and another with Latino aspiring farmers. Below are the summaries of participants’ responses to the discussion questions:

Spanish-English focus group: Latino aspiring farmers (n=3) and agricultural professionals (n=5)

(To aspiring farmers) Why do you want to farm?

-To continue a family tradition
-To make use of our under-utilized agricultural knowledge
-To have better variety of things to eat
-To contribute to the local community in the form of providing healthy, fresh food

How would you start farming? What do you use or have you used to reach a goal (like buying a house)? What ideas circulate in your family in discussions about farming?

A great abundance can be grown on just 10-20 acres of Iowa’s incredibly fertile soil, so we wouldn’t need to buy as much land as other Iowa farms
We would try to get a loan, get land, and get seeds (learn which seeds are well-suited to Iowa’s environment). But a problem is high mortgage rates (like 9%)

(To agricultural professionals) How to do you get a loan at a good interest rate to buy land?

-Bankers give loans IF clients follow strict steps in preparation
-You need a business plan to get a loan
-A few banks have hired bilingual staff to serve as liaisons to Latino community
-There is local person now teaching courses in Marshalltown in Spanish on small business start-up, and is interested in teaching business skills to beginning farmers
-There are federal programs available to help with the purchase of a house (one participant said he achieved $30,000 federal contribution for house purchase)
-There is a 20-acre lot with a house for sale just outside of town for $150,000

(To aspiring farmers) How do we (agricultural organizations) learn who new farmers are, and let them know who we are?

To reach Latinos, organizations should publicize in El Enfoque, a Spanish newspaper out of Perry, as well as in local English papers, and put up signs at Mexican grocery stores, the church, and through the Latinos in Action community network.

Arabic-English focus group: Sudanese aspiring farmers (n=3) and agriculture professionals (n=5)

(To aspiring farmers) Why do you want to farm?

-My parents farmed and I farmed
-It’s an occupation I like
-In my country, we farmed by hand, and here there is machinery, which is even better
-Iowa is a farming state

How would you start farming?

-I never asked anybody here about farming, but I sent money home with somebody to buy seeds from home and bring them back here
-I asked the manager of my apartment if I could have a little piece of land for a garden, but he refused
-I never asked about farming here because it seems so different than in Sudan
-I sometimes walk through the corn fields just to get the feeling of being in the country

What size of farm would you prefer?

-I would be happy with whatever is offered
-I have a large family so a large farm would be great
-Bigger than the Hy Vee (grocery store) parking lot

How do we (agricultural organizations) learn who new farmers are, and let them know who we are?

The best way to reach people is by networking through community links, such as statewide and local Sudanese organizations. Also, leave flier at the education and training center in Marshalltown. In Des Moines, there are about 5,000 Sudanese, and there are people who don’t have jobs, do have farming skills, and want to farm!

How might language barriers between beginning farmers and (above) organizations be overcome?

Although we do not speak English, we will learn what you teach us about agriculture here quickly because we already understand the basic concepts of production from our farming experience in Sudan
Translation of materials into Arabic would help, and make people more interested

Other points raised and questions asked:

-It is hard for many of us to think about going to college because we have much more basic needs (as refugees). The immediate concern for many of us is getting a job. Later, we might to go for a degree.
-How can I learn about marketing here (including things like inspection requirements)?
-When I drive to Des Moines, all I see is corn. Does Iowa grow anything but corn?
-Friends coming from Sudan sometimes bring seeds to Iowa, particularly tomato and watermelon seeds because these products taste different here (watermelon is much sweeter in Sudan than what you have here)
-Sudanese farms used animals for manure to fertilize
-In Sudan, we have 3-4 oil seeds (including sesame), beans, cotton, and sunflower
Iowa’s soils are amazingly productive, but the growing season is short!

In-depth interviews with four established farmers

Why they farm

The farmers in this study were motivated to farm in part to live in the countryside. Rural life allows access to several activities and amenities these farmers value, such as producing specific types and quality of food not otherwise available. Some prefer rural living for social reasons. These include the privacy of living on an acreage, and on the other hand, the possibility of being a member of a small town and being able to entertain visitors on a farm.

Some respondents like to farm because it is outdoor, physical work, both stimulating and relaxing. Some take particular comfort in working with animals. One who is diabetic said being with animals is healing to him. Two said working with animals gives them a sense of wholeness. A sense of tradition also motivates the farmers. One explained that rural Iowa is much like rural Mexico, and that living on a small farm keeps him from missing Mexico. He wants to pass on traditions of rural Mexico to his children. In milking cows, making cheese, and keeping and butchering animals, these farmers are re-creating practices of their childhoods.

How they started

A common response when I tell people about my research is: how could working class people afford to buy land to start farming? Farmland in Iowa is expensive. The experiences of my respondents show that buying land for farming is possible for immigrants, even with low income, by mobilizing various forms of social and financial capital. The respondents are part-time farmers on 10 to 20 acres, and each relies on off-farm employment as a primary source of income. These individuals bought farmsteads with houses, rather than vast acreages, and raise mixed livestock, rather than input-intensive crops.

Their costs, therefore, have been lower than one would expect for a farmer entering conventional agriculture in Iowa. Furthermore, part-time production of vegetables, meats and dairy for sale and home consumption has a more dynamic set of outcomes than simply adding income and reducing grocery expenses. It can also improve resilience to shocks and stresses by enhancing physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing, and by increasing net wealth through land ownership.

The farmers in this study got bank loans to buy land by mobilizing social capital – with friends and family members to raise enough money for a down payment, and with long-time Anglo residents in their local communities who served as character references to a loan officer. They mobilized financial/built capital from Mexico or Iowa in the form of houses, vehicles, livestock, and land. They sold these assets for cash or used them as collateral.

This research shows that tending livestock is an apt way to enter farming because of:
1) past experiences tending livestock, butchering, milking cows and making cheese;
2) the opportunity to develop niche markets among Latino immigrants for goats, pigs and other slaughter animals;
3) low-overhead and quick turn-around in small-scale livestock production; and
4) the daily morning and evening schedule involved in tending animals is compatible with working off-farm during the day.

All four farmers experimented with owning and selling animals before building larger herds. None has made large capital investments (compared to large-scale commodity farmers) in machinery, buildings or inputs; some have mobilized family social capital to make improvements. Furthermore, grazing livestock as opposed to planting crops allows farmers to make use of marginal land, which may be less expensive than prime cropland. The farmers sometimes cut costs by making use of family expertise and labor and recycled materials when making improvements to their land, such as building fencing or upgrading the outdoor electrical work.

Each farmer has adapted his livestock production experience in Mexico to an Iowa context. Each did this by utilizing rural institutions and relationships with other local farmers to acquire livestock, sometimes at a discount, and tapping into co-ethnic networks and commodity chain markets to sell slaughter animals. Interestingly, each respondent’s particular style of farming is influence by his social connections. Rigoberto, a bilingual farmer in northwest Iowa whose social network is with Anglo farmers, farms in a style typical of an Anglo farmer in Iowa – he raises hogs on contract. Despite such assimilation, though, his Mexican roots are evident in his practice of milking a part-Angus (corriente, or mixed breed) cow for home consumption, making cheese, and keeping a few goats and red, free-range chickens. Arturo, by contrast, who speaks only Spanish and markets livestock to a broad network of co-workers at the meatpacking plant, raises a herd of goats on pasture, similar to what he did in Mexico.

Research (Raijman and Tienda 1999) has shown that some Latino immigrants enter entrepreneurship through the informal market because of low-risk up-front investment. Three of the four farmers in this study (all but Rigoberto) sell livestock informally through extended networks of friends, coworkers and relatives. Their operations are informal in the sense that they are sole proprietorships, or businesses not represented by a formal legal organization; any income earned is reported on the owner’s personal income taxes (O’Brien, Hamilton, and Luedeman 2005). Arturo is beginning to formalize his livestock operation in the sense of having obtained state certification for processing. Marcos, Rigo and Arturo spoke of wanting to expand their herd sizes and acreage for livestock grazing; Jaime expressed interest in diversifying into commercial vegetable production.

Jaime, Marcos and Rigo had not used public agricultural agencies, such as Farm Services Agency or ISU Extension. This was because they did not know how to use them without speaking English, or they were unaware of them or of the services they provided. Marcos wanted information on direct-marketing small quantities, like eggs by the dozen. Jaime wanted information related to livestock production. He also wanted to know how to sell vegetables.

Marshalltown Latino-owned business survey

Seven of the nine Latino-owned restaurants and grocery stores in Marshalltown surveyed would like to buy locally produced foods, and all nine believe it is important to support local farmers and entrepreneurs. The most common reason respondents give for not retailing or using locally grown produce is that none is available. They also stated that the long winters would prevent them from much local sourcing. However, four out of the nine respondents had purchased vegetables (squash and tomatoes, in particular) from a local grower. The nine businesses currently buy food products from large suppliers like Cisco and several that cater to a Mexican market. Many suppliers are from Chicago. Most respondents stated that everything they want to sell is available through their current suppliers, but one said corn-on-the-cob is not available (the surveys were conducted in March), and another, corn flour for tortillas. The most common vegetables respondents indicate they use or sell are tomatoes, an assortment of chili peppers, lettuce, onions, cilantro, potatoes, and several tropical fruits and vegetables.

García, V. and J. Marinez. 2005. “Exploring Agricultural Census Undercounts Among Immigrant Hispanic/Latino Farmers with an Alternative Enumeration Project.” Journal of Extension 43(5): Article No. 5FEA2.

Holzman, Jon. 2000. Nuer Journeys Nuer Lives: Sudanese Refugees in Minnesota. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

NASS (National Agriculture Statistics Service). 2002. “Counting Diversity in American Agriculture.” U.S. Department of Agriculture 2002 Census of Agriculture. Retrieved Jan. 8, 2007 (

O’Brien, D., N. Hamilton and R. Luedeman. 2005. The Farmer’s Legal Guide to Producer Marketing Associations. Des Moines: Drake University Law Center.

Raijman, R. and M. Tienda. 1999. “Immigrants’ Pathways to Business Ownership: A Comparative Ethnic Perspective.” (Later draft of a paper) presented at the Conference of the Research Committee #28 (Social Stratification and Mobility) of the International Sociological Association, May 1997, Tel Aviv.

State Data Center of Iowa. 2007. “Iowa Census Data Tables: Estimates.” Retrieved Feb. 1, 2007 (

U. S. Bureau of the Census, Decennial Censuses. 2000 Census: SF3, Tables DP2046, 2056-2062 (Prepared by State Library of Iowa, State Data Center Program:


Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:


Lewis, Hannah. 2007. “Hacia el Ranchito: Mexican Immigrants, Farming and Sustainable Rural Livelihoods,” Masters Thesis, Iowa State University.

The in-depth interview data collected through this project made up the basis of my thesis for a Master of Science degree in Sustainable Agriculture and Sociology, completed May 2007.

A report on pooled Denison and Marshalltown survey data to be distributed on CD-ROM to Iowa communities with high Latino immigrant populations, fall 2007.

Academic article on this research to be submitted to Extension and other applied social and agricultural science journals, winter of 2007


“What we know about the farming experience among Latino immigrants in Marshalltown and Denison, and their interest in farming in Iowa”
Diversity Committee meeting, Denison: November 2007.

“What we know about Mexican farmers in Iowa and Latinos who would like to farm in Iowa”
Presented at SARE Professional Development Program, “Building Capacity to Engage Latinos in Local Food Systems,” Ames: September 2007.

“Hacia el Ranchito: Mexican Immigrants, Farming and Sustainable Rural Livelihoods in Iowa,” presented on three occasions:
Agriculture Food and Human Values Society and Association for the Study of Food and Society joint annual meeting: “Cultivating Appetites for Knowledge: International Food Conference,” University of Victoria, Victoria, Canada: May 2007.

5th Henry A. Wallace Inter-American Scientific Conference, CATIE University, Turrialba, Costa Rica: May 2007.

Graduate Program in Sustainable Agriculture (GPSA) Research Symposium, Ames: April 2007.

“Supporting New Immigrants as New Farmers: The Case of Marshalltown, Iowa – Panel from Marshalltown”
Presented at The Wellbeing of Rural Kansas: Healthy People, Healthy Environment and Healthy Economies Conference, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas: February 2007.

“Fostering Agricultural Entrepreneurship in Iowa’s Immigrant Communities”
Presented at The Leopold Center Marketing and Food Systems Workshop, Ames: December 2006.

“Immigration into Six U.S. Communities: A Town Meeting Emphasizing Best Practices, Marshalltown, Iowa”
Report to community on two Marshalltown studies, Marshalltown: August 2006.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Supporting immigrant farmers

University, government and community-based agricultural organizations have an important role to play in supporting established and aspiring immigrant farmers. Furthermore, as evidenced by their participation in the focus groups and other aspects of this graduate student project, organizations want to reach out to new immigrant farmers. A SARE-funded Professional Development in Iowa launched in September 2007 is training 20 to 40 Extension field specialists and others in cultural competency and local food system development.

This research suggests that immigrants with small-scale or subsistence farming backgrounds (the vast majority of those surveyed) have interest and skills to engage in small-scale, diversified farming in Iowa. The Latino non-farmers surveyed want to farm on small acreage (38 acres on average), and most want to produce mixed vegetables and livestock for sale and home consumption. Most are experienced in a wide variety of farming activities, including crop and livestock production using chemical and natural inputs, seed selection and saving, selling agricultural products, milking cows, making cheese, and processing animals into meat, among other things. Most Latino respondents see access to financial capital as the greatest barrier to starting farming, although homeowners are less likely to see this as a barrier. Sudanese respondents expressed less interest than Latinos in growing food to sell, instead favoring the idea of growing food for home consumption.

Furthermore, there is variation among Latino respondents in how they view farming in Iowa. With respect to gender, men and women have different ideas about the scale of farming they want to engage in, and may need to negotiate this difference within families. The subset of 13 farmers characterized by wanting more land and more crop diversity and wanting to farm full time paints a picture of people who are more overtly motivated to farm. This cluster suggests that older men with a longer time in the U.S. might become farmers more readily than others, especially if they also own homes. However, younger, newer Latino immigrants might be spurred to start farming too, simply on a smaller scale. In particular, this group might begin in community garden plots or Marshalltown Community College’s small-scale farm incubator plots.

The established farmers in this study are pioneers. They forged pathways into Iowa agriculture by drawing on their own skills, social connections, and limited financial wealth, and being led by their dreams, and with minimal to no assistance from agricultural organizations. They have at once preserved traditions from their Mexican agricultural heritages and adapted to the conditions of Iowa, where institutions, terrain, soils, and climate differ significantly from those in Mexico. Their experiences serve as examples of what is possible for other immigrants who want to farm. And they are instructive in highlighting the types of assistance that Iowa’s agricultural organizations can provide to immigrant farmers.

Organizations can begin by simply making immigrants aware of the services they provide, and creating multilingual access to these services for non-English speakers. Organizations could help aspiring farmers get access to credit by providing training in small business development. They can also focus on connecting beginning farmers to small farmstead acreages, which may not be far out of reach financially for some homeowners. Once established, farmers need bilingual information on marketing, regulations, production, and business organization. They can also tap into the local food system movement and help connect farmers to a variety of markets for small to mid-sized diversified farmers, such as farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture, and institutional procurement arrangements.

Methodological implications: finding farmers

Since Mexican immigrant farmers are not yet well connected to agricultural institutions, and given that most federal agencies are restricted by law from providing contact information for clients, going through these agencies to reach Latino farmers may be unproductive. Instead, it may be fruitful to go through the institutions these farmers commonly use, such as livestock auctions, used farm equipment auctions, local livestock supply stores, county fairs, and local banks. One might also examine land deed records at county assessors’ offices, looking for small acreages and Spanish surnames. The agricultural organizations themselves might take these approaches as well to connect to small-scale, part-time immigrant farmers.

Summary of implications for institutions:

-Mexican immigrant farmers are not yet well connected with agricultural institutions, but could benefit from information presented in person in Spanish on regulations, production, business organization, and markets.
-Farmsteads with small acreage may be sufficient and even ideal.
-Aspiring farmers who own houses may be in a better position to get bank loan to buy a farm
Knowing and being known by townspeople can help secure bank loans.
-Entering farming via livestock production builds on human, social and cultural capital, and can be developed/expanded little by little.

Other projects leveraged

-The survey instrument on experience, skills and interests in farming, developed for Latino and Sudanese immigrants in Marshalltown, was used in Denison, Iowa, spring of 2007. The Marshalltown project helped leverage (non-SARE) support for this Denison project.
-A proposal to collaboratively develop a multicultural food system in Marshall County is being considered for funding by a non-SARE funding organization. The project team (Iowa Network for Community Agriculture, Marshalltown Community College, ISU Marshall County Extension, and other local organizations) grew out of relationships developed through the activities of this SARE project.
-The results of this project, demonstrating strong interest in farming among Latino and Sudanese immigrant residents in Marshalltown, have helped establish support for ongoing development of Marshalltown Community College’s new Entrepreneurial and Diversified Agriculture program, including development of a farm manager position.

Economic Analysis

Not Applicable.

Farmer Adoption

We sought to identify farmers and potential farmers to learn about their aspirations and make agricultural organizations aware of opportunities for outreach to new audiences. We reached 123 people not currently farming to discuss with them their potential interest in farming, six aspiring farmers to introduce them to resources, and four established farmers to learn how and why they farm, and what their goals are. The principle impacts of this project have been creation of an inter-organizational network focused on improving outreach to Latino immigrant farmers, and initiation of follow-up research, education and outreach projects.


Areas needing additional study

The difficulty of finding Latinos farmers to interview for this study suggests the need for a thorough investigation of who and where Latino farmers in Iowa are, as per the work of Marinez and Garcia (2005) in Michigan. This endeavor might be conducted in conjunction with the National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS) Census of Agriculture, with extra measures taken to find farmers who are disconnected from agricultural organizations, unaware of the Census, or for any other reason likely to be missed. This long-term benefit this could have is to bring farmers and agricultural organizations into closer and mutually useful communication with one another.

Planning research is needed to develop multicultural local/regional food systems with clear access points for immigrant farmers. Planning would focus in counties or municipalities with promising entrepreneurial environments, especially for food and farming enterprise development. These places might be identified as having institutional structures such as community gardens, small-business networks, grassroots organizing projects, and a community college.

Planning efforts might be geared toward developing financial systems to make start-up and operating loans available to diverse audiences and for non-traditional (small-scale) farmers, finding ways for beginning farmers to access land, coordinating local actors to establish new marketing channels, developing beginning farmer business development and production training programs, and developing mentoring opportunities.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.