Latinos move up, from picking in fields to running the farm

08/16/2014 6:20 PM

08/16/2014 6:22 PM

When he was 15, an immigration raid at a Japanese flower nursery turned Arturo Flores’ life around.

The owners needed a new group of workers to replace the ones removed by immigration officials, and Flores landed a job cutting flowers. He slowly worked his way up to packaging and delivering them. In the mid-1980s, he got a call from two businessmen looking to start their own cut-flower business. They asked him to manage deliveries and distribution.

Today Flores, 50, is the president of Central California Flower Growers in Watsonville, a distributor in Santa Cruz County that sells more than 100 varieties of flowers and other plants.

Farming businesses in the United States are still dominated by whites, but Flores (whose last name means “flowers” in English) is one of a growing number of Latinos who own or operate farms in the country.

While the overall number of farms in the United States decreased by 4 percent from 2007 to 2012, the number of farms run by Hispanics increased by 21 percent to 67,000 from 55,570, according to data released in May from the government’s 2012 census of agriculture.

The numbers signaled a small but consistent pattern of growth in agribusiness among Latinos, many of whom have gone from working in the fields to sitting in the head offices.

Many, like Flores, emigrated from Mexico in the 1970s and ’80s and worked their way up from picking produce to managing the business.

They have classic American bootstrap stories of grit, determination and a little bit of luck. Some own the land they till while others rent. Many employ Mexicans whose language and job duties they understand intimately.

The majority of Hispanic-owned agricultural businesses are family-run. Jose Fernandez, the president of Fernandez Brothers, a strawberry grower for Naturipe Farms in Salinas, expects his 19-year-old son to go into the business.

Some of the younger second- or third-generation Hispanics entering the industry have advanced degrees in agriculture or business.

“First-generation farmworkers have worked their way up in terms of responsibility, and now we see many of their children going on to have the opportunity to pursue higher education,” said Charles Boyer, the dean of the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology at California State University, Fresno. “These people are increasingly seeing that agriculture has a very wide window of opportunity from the business side to the quality-control side to the science side.”

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