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Big change for small farms

Photo: Sergio and Lilia Marquez in their orchard with Malaquias Flores, right, coordinator of WSU’s Latino Small Farms Program. (Photo courtesy of Flores)

In 1977, Sergio Marquez left Mexico. He was 15 when he arrived in central Washington to work in the apple orchards around Wapato. After more than 20 years of experience as a laborer and foreman, Marquez dreamed of owning an orchard. A few years ago, his boss suggested that Marquez buy his farm.

“I thought he was just kidding,” Marquez recalled. “Then he gave me a very good deal for 106 acres of apples with all the equipment.” Malaquias Flores, coordinator of the Latino Small Farms Program, “helped me with the loan paperwork, and that’s how I became an owner.”

Flores started working for WSU Extension in 2004. He helps Hispanic farmers — either aspiring farmers like Marquez or established farm families seeking marketing and production advice. He estimates there are more than 2,500 Hispanic farmers in the state, up from 600 a decade ago.

One reason for this ownership growth, Flores explained, is that Hispanics who have experience in local agriculture and roots in the region are buying the farms owned by their former bosses.

“The farmers are getting older and are ready to retire, but their kids don’t want to be farmers,” he said. “We’ve found that they often sell their land to people who worked for them and know the farm.”

Marcia Ostrom, who directs the WSU Small Farms Program (ONLINE @ www.smallfarms.wsu.edu) and is an associate professor in community and rural sociology, adds that one of the goals for the small farms (defined as an owner-operated farm earning less than $250,000 annually) program is outreach to those Hispanic farmers.

“We want to provide them with access to our programs,” Ostrom said. “There are a growing number of Hispanic small farmers here in Washington and they tend not to use extension services.

“We can provide them with the business, marketing and production assistance farmers need. We just need to reach out to them — and that is what Malaquias is doing.”

Flores hosts a regular radio show broadcast in Spanish on KDNA in Granger. He collaborates with David Sonnenfeld, associate professor of community and rural sociology at WSU Tri-Cities, in producing that show.

Both are members of the Latino Outreach Work Group, which was established in 2005 by WSU Extension to diversify extension programs statewide and to meet the needs of the state’s Hispanic population.

Efforts will be expanded, Sonnenfeld said, with the hiring of a new tenure-track faculty member in WSU Tri-Cities’  Department of Community and Rural Sociology who will direct Hispanic outreach and program delivery for extension statewide. A national search is under way, and the faculty member is expected to start work in January.

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