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Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Based at KCUR in Kansas City, Harvest covers these agriculture-related topics through an expanding network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.Most Harvest Public Media stories begin with radio- regular reports are aired on member stations in the Midwest. But Harvest also explores issues through online analyses, television documentaries and features, podcasts, photography, video, blogs and social networking. They are committed to the highest journalistic standards. Click here to read their ethics standards.Harvest Public Media was launched in 2010 with the support of a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Today, the collaboration is supported by CPB, the partner stations, and contributions from underwriters and individuals.Tri States Public Radio is an associate partner of Harvest Public Media. You can play an important role in helping Harvest Public Media and Tri States Public Radio improve our coverage of food, field and fuel issues by joining the Harvest Network. Learn more here.

Children of Latino Immigrants Forge Paths in Agriculture

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Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media
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In a dimly-lit lab on the Des Moines, Iowa, public schools’ agricultural science campus, students in aprons, safety goggles and plastic gloves poke and probe chicken wings.

About 15 girls and just one boy in this vet careers class are looking for ligaments, tendons, cartilage and other features of this animal part that teenagers more often experience cooked and covered in barbecue sauce.

A 17-year old senior, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail for the dissection, high-fives her lab partner when they identify the ligament and show it to their teacher. This young woman is a chapter officer in the Des Moines FFA group and recently got elected to a district-wide leadership position. She’s already earned a full scholarship to Iowa State University and aspires to be a large animal veterinarian with her own small cattle herd.

Her name is Melissa Garcia Rodriquez. Born and raised in Iowa, Garcia comes from a Mexican family.

“My mom came to the U.S. She went to California first,” Garcia said. “She met my dad there, on a strawberry field and they shared a bean taco.”

The couple eventually moved to Iowa and found jobs that were not in the fields. But in the Heartland, as in California, many immigrants find work as dairy hands, crop pickers and, especially, on meat processing lines.

For years, Latino immigrants have filled some of the least-glamorous, most physically taxing jobs in farming. The children of those immigrants may be uniquely qualified to lead the future of the Midwest’s agricultural economy, if they decide to embark on an ag career.

Mexico is the single-largest country of birth for immigrants in the Midwest. Iowa, for instance, now has four school districts in which more than 50 percent of the student body is Hispanic or Latino. Each of those communities is also home to a meat processing plant. Still, Garcia says she often feels isolated.

“Personally, I have not met any other Latina or Latino students in the FFA, except for maybe one that I met my sophomore year,” Garcia said.

Many second-generation Latino Americans grew up watching their parents toil in hard, undesirable farm jobs. That’s turned some of them off of a career in the Midwest’s most important business.

“They see it as, this is something that my parents did and they came here for me to do something better,” said Christina Gonzalez, a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University.

Gonzalez thought she was going to study theater in college. But her older cousin Brian Castro, an Iowa State graduate, drew her into the College of Agriculture. They both grew up on Chicago’s Southside, their parents all immigrants from Mexico.  Castro says the role for bilingual, bicultural Latino Americans in agriculture goes far beyond the entry-level jobs of many new immigrants.

“There's a huge misrepresentation of the Latino population,” Castro said, “of Latino workers in the decision-making area for agriculture, even though they are the No. 1, the main population of the workers.”

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Credit Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media
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Iowa State University sophomore Christina Gonzalez and her older cousin Brian Castro have chosen to study agriculture, but say they understand why many children of immigrants steer clear of farming and horticulture careers.

Castro says people like him can be an important go-between for farm managers and recent immigrants. Many of agriculture’s biggest players are lobbying for a permanent guest worker program because farmworkers from Latin America keep the industry humming.

“The careers in Iowa agriculture, agri-business, really seem to me to be a very excellent position for students in the future who speak English fluently, speak Spanish fluently [and] understand the Hispanic culture, Latino culture,” said Dale Gruis, a consultant with the state’s education department.

But Latino enrollment in agricultural science classes at high schools and community colleges is out of sync with the Latino population growth, according to Gruis. That’s consistent with the experience of Latino immigrants in California’s farm-rich Central Valley, according to Charles Boyer, dean of the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology at California State University, Fresno. He says the first generation raised in the United States is typically resistant to pursuing careers in agriculture. But there are exceptions.

“There’s always some of them who do and they’re sort of the leading edge,” Boyer said. “And they show the way and kind of provide the role models for the third generation to step in and do it even more.” 

Melissa Garcia says she’s found her passion with livestock. She has already raised and sold sheep and soon, she’ll be raising her first steer.

“There’s a career and a job out there waiting for me,” she said. “And then hopefully one day I’ll reach my goal of having my own farm.”

It’s a lofty dream for anyone with no family land to work. But in a way, Garcia would be carrying on both a family and an American tradition. Her grandfather raised cattle in Mexico. And her parents have worked hard in the United States so that she can do whatever she wants. 

This project was reported with assistance from the Institute for Justice & Journalism’s “Immigration in the Heartland” fellowship.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.