Jose Montenegro grew up on a small farm in Durango, Mexico—a farm his father still owns and manages. Today Montenegro is director of the Rural Development Center in Salinas, California, providing training for migrant farm workers to become independent farmers. "There is this passion, this love, that Mexican people have for the land that goes way back to our ancestors," Montenegro says. "When I came [to the United States] I worked in factories, but I was looking for a commitment, not just a job."
The Rural Development Center opened its doors in the 1980s to address an unrecognized statistic. While California’s "traditional" family farms—run by the descendents of European immigrants—were on the decline, between 1992 and 1997 there was a 32 percent increase in Latino farm owners.
The same statistics are turning up around the country for "nontraditional" and "new entry" farmers. Nearly 9 percent of U.S. farms are owned and operated by women. The percentage of black-owned farms is also on the rise, due in part to the 1997 discrimination suit black farmers won against the USDA. There is a nationwide increase in small farms owned or operated by American Indians, Latinos, and Asians.
The USDA’s National Commission on Small Farms is changing the climate for small farm owners. The Ag Department’s Civil Rights Action Team recommended formation of the commission after it was recognized that, in addition to racial discrimination, government policies and practices have discriminated against small farm operators.