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Latino immigrants, of course, have long supplied the grueling, low-paying work that a lot of agriculture requires, and that native-born Americans seemingly find beneath them. Now these immigrants are managing to buy farms and put down roots, just as the American ethos says they should be able to do.
"Latino farmers are taking over agriculture in the state of Washington," says Malaquías Flores, who runs a program at Washington State University that helps Latinos access farm loans and manage their businesses.
He says WSU started the program nine years ago because it was looking to foster growth in small-scale farming, and found that Latinos were mostly the ones wanting to get into the business. (The program only assists immigrants who are here legally.)
Nationwide, according to the latest figures, the number of Hispanic farmers increased 14 percent between 2002 and 2007—twice the rate of growth among farmers overall, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The West Coast, New Mexico, and Texas saw the biggest increases in Latino farmers, who also have become a presence in Arizona, Florida, Texas, and Hawaii.
"It's well-recognized by many of us that the future of the industry is with Hispanic—mostly Mexican—immigrants," says Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, a Yakima-based organization representing farmers around the state. "They know the business. They love it. And that's who it's being passed on to in many respects."
Hispanic immigrants are propping up small-town real-estate markets too, even if they have to dig into what Nestor Hernandez, a realtor and president of Yakima County's Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, calls their "mattress money." Indeed, Hispanics are virtually the only people buying property in a whole series of farming towns east of the Cascade mountains.
Meanwhile, many of the politicians who like to celebrate small towns and family farms in their political rhetoric are also the ones calling for a crackdown on illegals. Speaking at the GOP convention in 2008, for instance, Sarah Palin famously declared: "We grow good people in our small towns...They're the ones who do some of the hardest work in America, who grow our food and run our factories and fight our wars." (She was, in part, quoting the journalist Westbrook Pegler.) But this May, she stood with Arizona Governor Jan Brewer at a press conference and declared her support for the new state law requiring local law enforcement to question suspected illegal immigrants.
Missouri Congressman Sam Graves, who's running for re-election this year and whose bios highlight his status as a "sixth-generation, full-time family farmer" from the tiny town of Tarkio, has proposed shutting down even legal immigration until the borders are secure, according to The Washington Post Company website Who Runs Gov.
Here in Washington state, U.S. Senate candidate and Tea Party favorite Clint Didier is playing up his roots as a "Home Town Farm Boy"—indeed, those are the first words to load on his home page. His posted bio lauds him for returning with his family, after a professional football career, to the farming life in eastern Washington that he knew as a child. Yet he suggested last month at the Republican state convention in Vancouver that the U.S. stop granting citizenship to the children of illegals—a position arguably more radical than Arizona's governor's. Didier, whose Pasco farm is located roughly 75 miles from Marquez's orchard, grows grains such as wheat and barley—crops whose harvest is heavily mechanized, with considerably less need for cheap labor.