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By Uniting, Michigan's Hispanic Farmers Try To Find Their Voice

Farmer Arturo Pendoja talking with Kyle Mead, ground water technician with the Van Buren Conservation District
Robbie Feinberg, WMUK

This week, we’ve been looking at the changing lives of Hispanic workers in Michigan’s fields. Many are leaving the fields entirely. But others are stepping into a new agricultural role: farm owner. From 2007 to 2012, the number of Hispanic farmers in Michigan has increased by nearly 10 percent. For years, they've faced discrimination and cultural barriers. But now, one man in Southwest Michigan is trying to bring them together.

Sifting through a row of blueberry plants, Arturo Pendoja talks about his journey from the fields of Mexico to his 45-acre farm in Decatur. 

Pendoja says, in his twenties, he left Mexico and ended up in Chicago. Since then, he’s basically never stopped working.

"When I was in Chicago, I really worked 14 hours a day," he says. "When I ran the two stores and the restaurant. And a job in a company!"

Hundreds of other Hispanics have made the same journey to Michigan. And like so many, Pendoja got sick of the long days in the factories and stores. Land in Michigan was cheap. By the end of his time in Chicago, Pendoja had saved up about $100,000.

"It's how I make the money to buy the farms!" he says. "Because those farms, I buy cash. I don't got no banks in this."

When asked where he kept all of that cash, Pendoja laughs.

"Under my pillowcase! I never used no banks!" he laughs. "I wasn't worried about it. My wife would put it under the floor. And that's how we keep it. You know, banks, they use your money. They make money. And they're not even going to appreciate your business."

You can hear in Pendoja's voice how much he distrusts banks and loans. Michigan State University researcher Shakara Tyler says that’s for good reason.

"Well, many (Hispanic) farmers would say that when they would go to the USDA farm loan offices as children, with their family members, they would see the USDA agents throw the loan application in the trash without even looking at it," she says.

"Or the USDA agent would say to the farmer, 'We don't have a program like that.' Then they would sit by and watch a white farmer walk in and then be served through the same program that they just asked about. So it was a lot of observation as a young person in watching their family members go through that discrimination." 

Hispanic farmers meeting at a Farmers On the Move meeting
Credit Robbie Feinberg, WMUK
Hispanic farmers meeting at a Farmers On the Move meeting

  Tyler says practices have changed in many loan offices. But the discrimination was widespread. In 2011, the USDA set up a claims program to reimburse Hispanic and female farmers for the practices. As of July 2015, it had approved more than 3,000 claims and paid out more than $200 million. Tyler says that legacy leaves a lot of Hispanic farmers wary of turning to the USDA for help.

However, once a Hispanic farmer overcomes that hurdle, many then face an even larger one -- understanding agricultural rules and handbooks when they can barely speak English, let alone read it.

"They gave us a book, and it's in English!" Arturo Pendoja shouts in his blueberry fields. "That's like if you talk to me in Chinese! I say, I talk a little English. And maybe read in a little English. But probably, some people don't even know one word! It's hard for those people."

Michelle Napier-Dunnings, the executive director of the organization Michigan Food and Farming Systems, says Spanish translation has become a priority for the USDA and some state agriculture agencies. But she says straight translating is one thing. Making agriculture understandable is another.

"Interpreting all of the acronyms and language that goes into all of the federal and state programs and all of the regulations, that's a whole language in and of itself," Napier-Dunnings says. "If a Hispanic farmer doesn’t know the right words, and is struggling with putting the sentence in English, there’s a huge challenge."

All of those troubles make a farmer like Pendoja an outsider in an agricultural industry that’s often slow to change.

Despite that, though, more Hispanic farmers are buying land in Michigan every year. So how can they get equal footing with farmers who’ve been here for decades? In Southwest Michigan, the strategy is to work together.

Every few months during the summer, roughly a dozen Hispanic farmers gather at a Southwest Michigan farm for a kind of training session. These are the members of Farmers on the Move, a Michigan co-operative just for Hispanic farmers. And the man at the center of it all is Filiberto Villa Gomez.

Truthfully, Villa Gomez’s biggest job at these meetings is a simple one: translator. Kyle Mead, with the Van Buren Conservation District, is providing some basic training to the farmers here. Where to set up a well. Where to store chemicals. How to check for pests. The process is slow, with Mead yelling out advice and Filiberto translating, slowly, from English to Spanish, then vice-versa.

The journey Villa Gomez took the United States is similar to the farmers he’s here to help. He grew up in Mexico, worked in agriculture, then moved to the States. When he got here, he talked with Hispanic farmers and realized there was a lot of potential that just wasn’t being reached. So he formed Farmers on the Move as a way to connect the farmers together. 

They could share equipment, share resources, and talk to each other. Most importantly, these small farmers could form a brand that they could sell their products under.

Inside his small Battle Creek office, Filiberto flips through a giant folder with a big "Farmers on The Move" logo plastered on top.

"I can show you this," he says, pulling out what looks like a legal document. "This is the Farmers on the Move registered trademark!"

Villa Gomez keeps rustling through the folder, pulling out a marketing plan and Farmers on the Move labels and logos. He puts them on every carton of fruits and vegetables that end up at a local farmers market.

"And I see people come [to the Farmers Market]," he says. "And they say, 'Hey, where's Farmers on the Move?' People are recognizing the products when you stay there! This is part of the credibility, you know?"

But Villa Gomez is honest about the challenges. Breaking your way into any big, established system is difficult. Villa Gomez says he needs to convince his farmers to expand their market, which isn't easy.  

Filiberto Villa Gomez translating at a Farmers on the Move meeting in Decatur, Mich.
Credit Robbie Feinberg, WMUK
Filiberto Villa Gomez translating at a Farmers on the Move meeting in Decatur, Mich.

Many want to just sell in places like Chicago, where they know the people and the culture. The challenge is convincing them that there might be better options closer by. He talks about trying to get his farmers to sell in Battle Creek. But when those farmers find out that many of the nearby restaurants speak English (not Spanish), they resist.

"But this is part of the barrier," he says. "They need more interest. But all we are doing for that, it's very slow."

On the other side, Villa Gomez needs to convince big produce buyers to purchase lots of fruits and vegetables from Farmers on the Move. Right now, though, he’s having trouble getting them to buy even a few pounds of asparagus from his farmers.

"I can show you, now, I've got 800 pounds of asparagus right now. I offer them to my customer," Villa Gomez says. "What'd he say?"

Villa Gomez pulls out his phone and shows me a text message from the buyer. Out of a thousand pounds, the customer wants only 25. That means Villa Gomez will be spending some long days at the Farmers’ Market, trying to get rid of this stuff.

You have to ask: is it worth it?

"Probably I'm crazy. Really crazy! But I'm trying to do a little change with my community," Villa Gomez says. "I stay here because I am very persistent. I believe in the people's behavior. I know the behavior, because I am from the same place!

Villa Gomez says that persistence is paying off. State agencies are putting more information in Spanish. Slowly, Farmers on the Move is entering new markets.

But he says he expects the biggest changes to happen years down the line. It’s then, he says, that Hispanic farmers’ children and grand-children will finally get an equal playing field. 

This is the final part of a three-part series on the changing lives of Hispanic workers in Michigan. You can hear the entire series here.

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