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A new era of civil rights? Latino immigrant farmers and exclusion at the United States Department of Agriculture

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In this article we investigate how Latino immigrant farmers in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States navigate United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs, which necessitate standardizing farming practices and an acceptance of bureaucracy for participation. We show how Latino immigrant farmers’ agrarian norms and practices are at odds with the state’s requirement for agrarian standardization. This interview-based study builds on existing historical analyses of farmers of color in the United States, and the ways in which their farming practices and racialized identities are often unseen by and illegible to the state. This disjuncture leads to the increased racial exclusion of immigrant farmers from USDA opportunities. Such exclusions impede the transition to a “new era of civil rights,” as has been proclaimed by USDA leadership. Although efforts to address institutionalized racism on a national level may be genuine, they have failed to acknowledge this schism between rural Latino immigrants and the state, thereby inhibiting a meaningful transition in the fields, and continuing a legacy of unequal access to agrarian opportunities for non-white immigrant farmers.

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  1. 1.

    For more information on the Socially Disadvantaged Applicant Program, see

  2. 2.

    These numbers do not tell us how many are first generation immigrants. The number of operators that were also owners before 2012 is not available. We would argue Latino immigrants are generally being undercounted in these numbers. Almost none of the farmers we interviewed had heard of the Agricultural Census. Many farm on rented land, often under informal agreements. Even those that own their land rarely live on the farm. Given their histories of immigration, many are resistant to filling out government paperwork. Additionally, Hispanic/Latino is considered an ethnicity, not a race, by the Census, and if they check this box they must also choose a race, such as White, Black, or Native American, none of which are representative of the farmers we interviewed. In discussions with Census of Agriculture Staff who outreach to Hispanic/Latino populations, it was confirmed that although they have increased outreach to all groups deemed socially disadvantaged farmers in recent years, they also agreed that the farmers discussed in this study are still underrepresented in the census. Despite these issues, the census is still the best comprehensive national agricultural data we have to date and provides context for racial and ethnic shifts occurring in US agriculture.

  3. 3.

    Lawsuits include the Pigford v. Glickman and Brewington v. Glickman class action lawsuits for African American farmers, The Keepseagle v. Vilsack settlement for Native American farmers, and The Hispanic Farmers and Ranchers and Female Farmers and Ranchers claims processes. More information can be found at

  4. 4.

    We are not claiming that family labor is inherently a better system or more equitable, only that it is evidence of a particular form of farming. Hiring family labor by no means ensures labor justice on the farm. In particular, family labor can reinforce patriarchal agrarian relations and patterns (See Feldman and Welsh 1995; Reed et al. 1999; Riley 2009).

  5. 5.

    For more information on practice support programs see:

  6. 6.

    This is with the exception of the work of Miriam Wells (1996), whose groundbreaking research in the 1970 s and 80 s shed light on the class and race-based struggles of Mexican and Japanese immigrants in California agriculture.

  7. 7.

    We do not mean to imply that USDA practices or requirements are the only factors limiting the advancement of Latino immigrant farmers. There are many other barriers, including lack of access to capital, land, and markets, which are also related to their educational, linguistic, and citizenship limitations. These barriers are compounded by the standardization and bureaucracy required by the state in order to access programs and assistance.

  8. 8.

    Nationally, there are USDA staff in local office that speak Spanish. For the larger project, we were able to interview two in Washington State.

  9. 9.

    The National Agricultural Statistics Service defines a farm as any business “from which $1000 or more of agricultural products were sold or would normally be sold during the year” (USDA 2014). Since the Census only requires a $1000 sales minimum, and all the farmers we interviewed are selling regularly at farmers’ markets and other informal venues, we assume they are all selling at least that much in the year, so there should not be a discrepancy in definitions. To be considered an “actively engaged farmer,” according to the Farm Service Agency of the USDA, and therefore benefit from their farm programs, one must significantly contribute to agriculture in the form of, “capital, land, and/or equipment, as well as active personal labor and/or active personal management.” Individual contributions to the farm operations must be “identifiable and documentable; as well as separate and distinct from the contributions made by any other partner, stockholder or member” (Farm Service Agency 2015).


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The authors are grateful to the Goucher College Environmental Studies Department for the opportunity to work together and conduct this research as well as the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics at Syracuse University and the Association of American Geographers (AAG) for continued financial support for this project. They would also like to thank the organizers and participants of the “Race and Rurality in the Global Economy” Workshop at Duke University, where this paper was first presented, as well as Lindsey Dillon and Clare Gupta for comments on earlier versions and feedback from Evan Weissman on the workshop presentation. Most importantly, the authors would like to thank all participants in this study for their time and willingness to discuss their lives and livelihoods with us.

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Correspondence to Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern.

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Minkoff-Zern, LA., Sloat, S. A new era of civil rights? Latino immigrant farmers and exclusion at the United States Department of Agriculture. Agric Hum Values 34, 631–643 (2017).

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  • Immigrant farming
  • Race in agriculture
  • Latino farmers
  • United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)