By ANDREA CASTILLO
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ Florentin Salazar crouched down in the middle of a strawberry field, a downturned cowboy hat shielding his eyes from the late afternoon sun.
Carefully, he plucked three pale strawberries from a row of bushes, not yet ripe enough to sell but a strong indication that peak season was near. With more than 30 years experience, Salazar, like most Washington County farmers, is an agriculture veteran.But unlike many in Washington County, he worked his way up from farm worker to farm owner. The fruits and vegetables, the chickens in the coop, the egg-white calla lilies — he maintains all on 10 acres tucked behind Hillsboro proper.
Salazar, a 54-year-old Guatemala native, owns one of 138 known minority-operated farms in the county. Those farms make up less than 8 percent of the county’s total 1,724 farms. And while the number of total farms has stayed relatively constant, the number of minority-operated farms has increased eightfold since the Census of Agriculture first started tallying operators by racial group in 1974.
“When I came to this country in 1979, it was my dream to own a farm,” Salazar said. “It’s a process that takes a lot of time, but with patience, persistence and love, more than anything, it is attainable.”
Updated every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the census breaks down farm and ranch data by state and county. Minority farm operators are identified by racial group: African American, Native American, Latino, Asian or Pacific Islander, other races and those reporting more than one race.
In 1974, Washington County had 17 farms with minority operators. That number rose steadily over the years, especially in Latino- and Asian-operated farms. By the 1997 census, the county knew of 45 minority-operated farms.
Then in 2002 the number skyrocketed to 128 minority-owned farms.
Chris Mertz, director of the Oregon office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, said changes in data collection partially fueled the increase.
Dean Moberg, a Washington County district conservationist for the USDA, said another reason for the increase is Oregon’s food revolution, which has allowed minorities and immigrants to start small farms.
“People want local food,” he said. “That really encourages small farms and, a lot of times, organic farms. It helps minority farmers get over that stumbling block of not having a huge amount of capital.”
In addition, Adelante Mujeres, a Latino empowerment nonprofit in Forest Grove, has been churning out small farmers since 2005 through its Sustainable Agriculture program. The 12-week Spanish-language class teaches Latino immigrants how to grow organic food. While some participate for the health and cost benefits, others do it with the hopes of starting their own farming business.
Executive Director Bridget Cooke said local immigrants are ambitious but tend to start in low-wage positions. Farm workers who can save enough money look for opportunities to move up, she said.
“It’s a very different way of looking at the American dream,” she said. “For many people in the United States, that might not be a dream since it is such hard work. …We’ll definitely see minority farms continuing to rise.”
Not all small farmers start out as farm workers. Jimmy Thao, a 58-year-old immigrant from Laos, came to Oregon in 2000, rented a 1.5-acre plot near the Hillsboro Airport and set to work with the farming skills he learned as a young boy.
Thao’s flower farm is now a secondary source of income to his day job at the Multnomah County Health Department. He said Oregon has been more accommodating of his hobby than other states he has lived in, such as California, where big farms are the overwhelming majority.
“Laos is not a technological country; it’s mostly farming people producing crops by hand, not by tractor or by machine,” he said. “Over here, we don’t farm a lot — we just start little by little, so it’s easier that way.”
Salazar, the Guatemalan farmer, said many immigrants come to the United States in search of a stable income, and agriculture is a risk.
“Imagine if someone buys land, has enough money to maintain it for five months, and then has a bad harvest,” he said. “That is the fear everyone has told me about.”
Even so, it all comes back to persistence, Salazar said. Having owned his farm since 2007, he cultivated that soil into a dream come true.
Despite the setbacks, he said, more like him will begin to do the same.
Information from: The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com
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By ANDREA CASTILLO