Farmer of the Future: Blending of cultures may be blueprint for growth

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May 14th, 2012

By Kathleen Masterson, Harvest Public Media

Des Moines, IA – While some of the rural Midwest is hollowing out, regions like Sioux County, Iowa, are actually growing, thanks largely to immigrant populations moving in to take jobs that employers otherwise cannot fill. Melding cultures is never easy, but in places like Sioux County members of the Latino community are slowly making Iowa their home.

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Sioux County, in northwest Iowa, is known for its Dutch pastries. The landscape is dotted with Lutheran and reform churches. But today, Catholic churches and tortillerias are creeping into the landscape signs of the new residents joining this vibrant community.

The Natural Food Holdings plant in Sioux Center relies on its large number of Hispanic employees. (Photo by Kathleen Masterson, Harvest Public Media)

In Sioux County, as in a scattering of communities across the Midwest, Hispanic immigrants are working in meat processing plants, dairies, egg-laying facilities and hog barns. In fact, the majority of U.S. farm laborers today were born outside the U.S.

And while some of parts of the rural Midwest are hollowing out, areas like Sioux County, and its biggest city Sioux Center, are actually growing as immigrant populations move in to take jobs that otherwise employers cannot fill.

Sioux Center’s population has grown 17 percent, and the county is up 7 percent over the last decade. Meanwhile, government figures indicate 91 of Iowa’s 99 counties have declined by about 9 percent over the last three decades.

So no surprise, Sioux Center looks very different than many other rural communities in Iowa. But although this area may well offer a glimpse of the farming community of the future, the melding of cultures is not always easy.

Terry van Maanen bought Winding Meadows Dairy from his father in the '80s and has grown it to about 600 cows. He sells milk to Land O Lakes. (Photo by Kathleen Masterson, Harvest Public Media)

About two-thirds of the 15 workers at the 600-cow Winding Meadows Dairy, in nearby Rock Valley, Iowa, are Latino. Owner Terry van Maanen attributes that to the job demands of an operation that runs 24 hours a day, every day of the week — even on Christmas.

“You get people apply for a job here, and ‘Oh, weekends and nights?’ — oh, no, not interested,” Van Maanen said.

Some of the staff have been with him more than 10 years.

“I honestly think I could not run my business if all these, the guys that are working for me, were to leave and I had to fill them with non-Hispanic help,” he said. “I think I’d have to close the door.”

Van Maanen said everyone gets along well in the workplace, even though not all employees speak English. But outside of work, the Anglo and Latino cultures have been slower to come together, he said.

“The schools, I think, kind of bring everybody together, when their families have kids that go to the community school, I think it gives us a common entity to circle around,” he said.

Luis Campos, the parlor manager at Winding Meadows, said it took him a while to adjust to Iowa.

Luis Campos came to the U.S. illegally but eventually became a legal resident. Campos is now the parlor manager at Winding Meadow Dairy in Rock Valley, Iowa. (Photo by Kathleen Masterson, Harvest Public Media)

“At first, yeah it’s too hard for me. Especially when I was single,” he said. “But now I got a kids — my kids now, they like here.”

Campos came to the U.S. illegally but he married a U.S. citizen and got his papers. He is involved in the Latino community, leading Mexican totonaca dancing at a local Catholic church and teaching Sunday school to kindergarteners.

Enrique Luevano also really likes living in Iowa. Originally from Mexico, he’s lived here for 15 years now, and worked his way up to a supervisor at the pork processing plant Natural Food Holdings. He said Latino and Anglo cultures are still fairly separate.

“We respect each other, that’s what is nice about here, you don’t hear about people fighting because of the color of their skin. Here everybody minds their own business, and away we go,” he said.

Luevano is now a legal resident. But many others live in constant fear, community advocates say. They’ve established families and lives here, but if they’re pulled over coming back from the grocery store, they could be deported within days.

Still, there are signs Hispanics are making a home here. There are bilingual churches, local volunteers teach English night classes, and law enforcement has had training on working in a diverse community.

And these new residents are an important part of the community — and its future, said Gary Malenke, the president of the Natural Food Holdings pork processing plant.

“I think people believe that, Oh, these immigrants are stealing all these jobs,’ ” he said. “We don’t see that here.”

Malenke said there’s a real need for laborers in dairies, hog confinements, poultry farms and general construction, too.

Not only are immigrants helping buoy the farm economy, but their children are American citizens — they’re part of church communities and schools and sports teams.

“There’s a lot of progress in these communities, I mean in Sioux Center they’re going to build a hospital, a $48 million hospital. And that’s the kind of things that are happening in these communities, which tells you that businesses are doing well,” he said.

And when communities do well, it gives everybody options. The kids of these immigrant workers, just like other rural kids in the Midwest, are not all going into farm work. Some want to be doctors, teachers and business owners. And just like generations before, because of their parents’ hard work, they’ll have that opportunity.

Editorial note: You can’t feed the growing world population without farmers. But there are serious questions today about who will take on the job a few decades from now. Farmers are getting older, and technological, cultural and political forces are bringing immense changes to those who build their lives around the land.

In this weeklong special report on “The Farmer of the Future,” Harvest Public Media and NET News look at how some of those forces may play out over the next few years. Tune in every day this week for radio reports, culminating Friday, May 18th with the NET News documentary “Hispanic Farmers on Broken Ground,” airing on NET1/HD at 7 p.m. CT.

Harvest Public Media, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, reports on issues of food, fuel and field across the Midwest.

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