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It's tough to break into farming nowadays, and even tougher if you're an immigrant. Next month, Congress will appropriate hundreds of billions of dollars to different programs in the new farm bill. A tiny portion will be used to fund the minority farm outreach program. The program's advocates say the small amount of money will produce visible results by helping more immigrants become farmers.
Just outside of Northfield, Der Thao points out her farm's blooming annuals.
"Zinnias, statice, gladiolas, snapdragons and sunflowers," she says.
As Thao runs down the list, her husband Nikk Cha straightens out some gladiolas flattened from the previous night's storm. Nikk and Der own 65 acres, most of which are flowers. The fields of bright colors stand out from the surrounding gridwork of corn and soy. Nikk says this patchwork quilt of color is his family's dream come true.
Just two years ago, the pair became the first Hmong-Americans in Minnesota to receive a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to buy their own farm. Der says many in Minnesota's Hmong community have asked them how they did it, but few have followed their example.
"They ask about where to go and about how to do it, and what the process is," says Der. "We explain everything to them, and they look very interested, but it doesn't sound like they've taken the step yet."
Der says for new immigrants to the United States, becoming a farmer is a complicated business. The process is so confusing that according to Der and Nikk, they couldn't have done it without the help of the St. Paul-based Minnesota Food Association, or MFA. In recent years, MFA helped more than 150 immigrant farmers in areas like production techniques, marketing, and management skills.
MFA used to receive most of its operating funds from the USDA's 2501 program, also known as the minority outreach program. In the last fiscal year, the program distributed $3 million in grants nationwide to groups like MFA.
Just last fall, MFA had to put a hold on the program, after it lost funding from the USDA. Jan O'Donnell was MFA director at the time.
"When that funding was pulled with very little notice, we kind of disappeared," she says.
O'Donnell says MFA lost its funding because of administrative changes within the USDA under the new Bush administration. O'Donnell had to lay off two-thirds of her staff. All were helping immigrants in Minnesota start their own farms. She says the cuts couldn't have come at a worse time.
"There's a lot of people out there who are part of the new immigrant community that are very skilled, and interested in trying to make a living for themselves and provide food for people," says O'Donnell. "They deserve any break they can get, and this was not a break. It was a blow."
Advocates for immigrant farmers hope Congress will allocate more money in the new farm bill to the minority outreach program.
"By having this program we can find where things are going wrong, and we can tell the department about it. We can improve it in a cheaper way than having the lawsuits pending against the USDA for the way they've mistreated the farmers."
- Lorette Picciano, executive director of the Rural Coalition
Lorette Picciano is the executive director of the Rural Coalition, a Washington-based advocate for minority farmers. Picciano says the USDA has never done enough to reach out to minority and immigrant farmers. Sometimes, it's because of a language barrier, but more often than not, says Picciano, its an attitude problem.
"We've been told that in some areas black farmers are not 'real farmers.' And applications have been thrown in the trash. People are told to go away and come back in three weeks, and then there's no applications left," says Picciano. "By having this program we can find where things are going wrong, and we can tell the department about it. We can improve it in a cheaper way than having the lawsuits pending against the USDA for the way they've mistreated the farmers."
One of those lawsuits is Pigford v. Veneman, a class-action suit filed by black farmers. They said the government discriminated against them when they applied for agricultural loans. In 1999, the USDA settled the suit by promising each farmer a $50,000 tax-free grant. As of this week, the USDA has paid out $630 million in federal money to the plaintiffs. But 40 percent of the cases still have not been resolved.
Picciano says there are three similar lawsuits pending against the USDA. Groups of Hispanics, American Indians, and women all accuse the department of discrimination.
Picciano says all this money spent settling discrimination lawsuits could have been better spent preventing discrimination. She thinks the USDA needs to reexamine its priorities.
The minority outreach program is expected to get between $3 million and $10 million in this year's farm bill. In comparison, loans to provide money for high-speed Internet services to farmers will get $100 million.
Lou Gallegos, assistant secretary of administration for the USDA, admits the 2501 program does not have a lot of money. But, he says, the USDA would like to offer help in other ways.
"We need to develop firm, solid, mutually beneficial relationships with national broad-based organizations that have a structure all the way down to the grassroots level. We have to do that - we have not done enough of that," he says.
Gallegos says one of the significant changes in this year's farm bill is the lifting of restrictions controlling funding from USDA agencies. Now, these agencies will be able to give money to local groups such as MFA who are working to assist minority farmers.
"It's in their enlightened best interest to assist 2501 grantees in delivering services and outreach to small, disadvantaged and minority groups, because it reduces the amount of work they'd do in their own offices," says Gallegos.
Rural Coalition director Lorrette Picciano says the lifting of these restrictions is an encouraging change in USDA policy, but it is far from enough.
"More money is needed because there are more groups, there are unmet needs of current groups, and the authorization now includes additional groups. It would be wrong to then say that all these needs will be met by using money from other USDA agencies," says Picciano.
Back on their farm in Northfield, Nikk Cha and Der Thao seem very far away from the 2501 debate in Washington. But they've been successful under the program. And in the tradition of farmers all over the world, Nikk says they're eager to help immigrants who will follow in their footsteps.
"I would definitely support the next immigrant who comes forward and asks me what we are going to do," says Nikk. "I can give a hand out and tell them it's not difficult to take the next step."
Nikk and Der consider themselves a resource for immigrants interested in starting a farm. They hope that, after Congress appropriates money for the new farm bill, there will be a few more.More from MPR