Esperanza in Agriculture

Every year from September 15th to October 15th the nation celebrates National Hispanic Heritage Month. This year’s theme, Esperanza, invites us to celebrate Hispanic heritage and encourages us to reflect on the contributions Hispanic and Latinx people have made in the past and will continue to make in the future.

Fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, milk and dairy and the array of food on our grocery shelves comes in large part from the labor of Hispanic people who raise food for their communities and in food and meat processing plants.  Here in Minnesota, many food brands have thrived due to the contributions of Hispanic workers.  Over the last thirty years, consolidation in our food system, notably meat processing and dairy production, has resulted in an incredible reliance on Hispanic people to tend, harvest, and process meat and produce.

Often, their work is not adequately compensated for or recognized, even with the efforts of the United Farm Workers of America and other unions and organizations.  For example, last year’s COVID19 meat processing plant disruptions found essential workers required back on the line without a parallel requirement of necessary Personal Protective Equipment, testing, spacing and line slow downs. While some plant owners took steps to protect workers, others did not. Examples abound of similar injustices.

But our food system is changing as more Hispanic people begin their own farms. The Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC) helps Hispanic farmers locate land to buy or rent and navigate the Farm Service Agency and other entities to start their farming enterprises. Sharing Our Roots (formerly the Mainstreet Project) demonstrates a regenerative model of poultry production: offering clean, safe, affordable chicken and eggs and alternative job opportunities to Hispanic families and the larger community.

The investment by the MN Department of Agriculture and USDA in local meat processing, to expand and upgrade facilities, is another bright spot. New programs at Central Lakes College in Staples and Ridgewater in Willmar will start next fall to teach meatprocessing and aspects of owning local businesses. It would be great to see today’s meatprocessing workers become tomorrow’s local butcher shop owners as central fixtures in our mainstreet economies.

Ultimately, a paradigm shift is needed to truly bring justice to agriculture and honor the contribution of Hispanic people. Regenerative agriculture requires embracing diversity and breaking down the barriers to farming, during National Hispanic Heritage month, and year round.