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Starting a farm, with an immigrant twist

Amy Mayer/IPR

Air Philavanh is a new farmer in central Iowa who came to this country from Laos as a refugee more than 30 years ago. Today, he’s living on an 11-acre farm in Milo, Iowa about an hour from Des Moines. He bought the place three years ago and he’s built a brand-new shelter for his four beef calves off the end of a decrepit old barn. He’s made many other improvements, too, as he gets his farm up and running. In addition to the cattle, he hopes to add ducks. It’s a far cry from his day job with Citigroup—and not what he initially imagined for himself.

“I didn't think I would do farm[ing],” Philavanh said, “but now I get out and do farm[ing].”

As immigration takes center stage in Washington, minorities--often immigrants--are a growing presence among the nation’s farmers. The last Census of Agriculture showed the number of Latino or Hispanic farmers was up 14 percent while the figure for Asians increased 40 percent--and those numbers are continuing to rise, according to the National Immigrant Farming Initiative, with recent African immigrants also finding a place in agriculture.

Whether they begin farming soon after arriving or, like many other small farmers including Philavanh, turn to it after a different career, immigrant farmers face all the challenges starting a farm poses to anyone. They may also face a few extras, but bring their own cultural perspective to the American landscape. 

Philavanh has memories of his grandfather’s farm back in Laos and is drawing on what he learned there, long ago. He said his farm will differ from other Midwestern farms.

“American farm…they have tractors, they have machines, they have new technology, they have new science, new idea,” he said. “My farm is going to be [my] own style, Laotian style.”

He’ll also develop his own market—in particular, other Laotian immigrants in the area. But Philavanh said he’s open to learning all he can—in fact, he enjoys it. And he’s finding his neighbors are quite willing to help him. He’s also gotten connected with additional mentors thanks to Practical Farmers of Iowa’s Savings Incentive Program. Marc Strobbe runs that program for new and beginning farmers in Iowa.

“Basically we walk people through the process of creating a farm,” Strobbe said.

Applicants for the Savings Incentive Program must already be involved in a farm. If they are accepted into the program, the beginning farmers must save money each month, attend workshops and meet with a mentor. Then, they write a business plan. After two years, if they have met all the requirements, their monthly savings are matched—up to $2,400. Strobbe said of the 60 program participants so far, Philavanh is one of just two immigrants. But Strobbe said Philavanh fit the program well.

“He has that entrepreneurial zing that really makes things go,” Strobbe said.

Strobbe matched Philavanh with mentors Pat Standley and Matt Russell from nearby Coyote Run Farm. Russell said he sees echoes of his own farm’s launch--and countless other small farms started in recent years--in Philavanh’s plans. Russell recognizes the ambition.

“It's not like he has an immigrant's interest and passion, I mean he really has an American interest [in farming] that we’re seeing all across the country,” Russell said.

Still, some aspects of the farm will require extra attention, Russell said. Philavanh, who has been an American citizen for decades, talked with Russell about selling the ducks. The prospective Laotian customers would prefer to do the butchering themselves—and Philavanh is happy not to have that responsibility.

“If what you want to do is sell the live duck to the immigrant who's going to butcher the duck themselves, not a problem,” Russell said. “There's a legal way to do all of that.”

But it’s not the common way—Russell said more typically ducks would be processed and frozen for sale, perhaps at a farmer’s market. But Russell said he hopes to help Philavanh navigate the regulatory hurdles so he can do what he wants to do, properly. After all, Russell said, immigrants have long played an important role in Midwestern agriculture.

“The history of Iowa is really about new immigrants coming to this state and bringing with them a whole treasure trove of traditions and ways of looking at the world,” Russell said.

In the 21st century, immigrants are a growing segment of the farming population nationwide—not just agricultural workers, but farm owners and operators. Like Philavanh, many combine experience from their home country with the resourcefulness and innovation long known to farmers everywhere.

On Philavanh’s farm, for example, dozens of garden hoses are looped on fence posts. He runs them from the house so he doesn’t have to haul five-gallon buckets of water, two at a time, to his animals. Near one metal watering trough, he pointed to a section of white PVC pipe lashed to a couple of posts at an angle.

“Can you figure out what is that?” he asked, with a bit of a tease in his voice. The piece of pipe was his solution to the problem of hoses being pushed out of the trough—by wind or by a mischievous calf. With this set-up, he can slip the hose through the PVC pipe and then into the trough. It will then stay put as the trough fills, saving him time.

“When I ran the water from the house to here, sometimes [the hose] fell out and [kept] me busy and—[it’s] a lot of work,” Philavanh said, “I don’t want that.”

He’s also fashioned a make-shift gate lock from scrap wire and has apple trees growing near the house that he planted for shade—trees he grew from the seeds of grocery-store apples he ate. Philavanh said he’s constantly asking questions and always trying to improve his farm. Someday, maybe he’ll buy more land and more cattle, even quit his day job. But not anytime soon.

“Between work in the city and farm,” he said, “both of them make me happy. I love it.” When he has a little spare time, he said he goes fishing in his neighbor’s pond.

After three decades in this country, this new farmer has found his American dream.  

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames