As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, it is a good time to showcase agriculture – a key sector of the U.S. economy in which Hispanics have long played an instrumental, and often overlooked, role. As a Latina and a member of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s leadership team, I have seen firsthand how the fabric of agriculture is strengthened by the unique perspectives and practices of a diverse workforce.
Indeed, just like our nation, the men and women who run the country’s farms and ranches are diverse. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the number of farm operations run by Hispanics increased by 21 percent in just five years. The number of beginning farmers and ranchers—those on their operations who are just starting out and have less than ten years on the job—who identify as Hispanic has also increased over the last five years.
It’s clear that the agricultural landscape is changing, and Hispanics are playing a leadership role in that shift. At USDA, we’re working to expand opportunity for those folks, particularly those who are just starting out and wish to grow and strengthen their businesses. Through our programs, we are supporting access to land and capital; building new markets and market opportunities; extending new conservation opportunities; offering appropriate risk management tools; and increasing our outreach, education, and technical support.
Through the 2501 Program, for example, which targets outreach and technical assistance to veterans, minority and limited-resource farmers and ranchers, and others that have not historically benefited from USDA programs, has distributed over $57 million to 188 partners since 2010. That support enables community-based organizations and other partners, including Hispanic-serving institutions, to work directly with beginning farmers and ranchers to help them successfully acquire, own and operate farms and ranches and equitably participate in the wide range of available USDA programs and resources.
We also continue to emphasize the importance of fixing our broken immigration system. It’s an issue I’m very mindful of as I visit with stakeholders across the United States. To remain competitive and keep driving economic growth in rural America, we need an immigration system that works and we need it now. The majority of our farm workforce is made up of immigrants. Their hard work has helped make American agriculture a world leader and ensures the safe, healthy, affordable food supply we enjoy as a country. But today’s broken immigration system leaves millions of those same, critical workers in the shadows—a dangerous situation for everyone involved.
I am proud of the work we do at USDA to better serve Hispanic business owners. We continue our work to build a new legacy of equality, service and opportunity for all, and part of that is building a workforce that better reflects the public we serve. As a Hispanic leader, I’ve been doing my part to ensure that USDA is proactively recruiting, hiring, promoting, and retaining a more diverse workforce, including Hispanics. We’re working hard to change the way we do business and ensure that our programs reach all the communities that might benefit from them, and create a diverse, well-trained workforce. For example, Secretary Vilsack recently signed a historic Memorandum of Understanding with the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA), which represents 37 nonprofit and nonpartisan Hispanic organizations, to expand access for Hispanics to USDA programs and career opportunities.
My own USDA agency, the Agricultural Marketing Service, oversees 22 industry-funded research and promotion programs that allow farmers and businesses to pool resources, set common goals, and make collective decisions about how to best develop new markets, strengthen current markets, and conduct important research and promotion activities covering a wide variety of topics from nutrition to sustainability. These programs, which create opportunities for farms and businesses across the country, including Hispanic-owned and operated-operations, are led by industry board members. We’ve been working hard to ensure that research and promotion boards reflect the full diversity of American agriculture. We know that the programs are stronger when the boards represent the diversity of the industries they represent and the consumers they serve.
To truly be successful in leading and advancing American agriculture, we need everyone at the table – people and organizations of different backgrounds, perspectives, and opinions. USDA will continue working to bridge gaps and bring people together through hiring and retention, commodity purchases, and leadership on important industry boards. We are committed to making sure that a diverse set of people and voices will help shape the future success of American agriculture.
Anne Alonzo is theAdministrator, United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service.