Latinos And Agriculture: The Road From The Field To The Front Office


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WATSONVILLE, Calif. — When he was 15, an immigration raid at a Japanese flower nursery turned Arturo Flores’s life around.
The owners needed a new group of workers to replace the ones removed by immigration officials, and Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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, during the same period 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 Mr. 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.
Salvador Vasquez, 56, who owns Vas Vision Berry Farms, a berry grower for Driscoll’s in Watsonville, came to the United States from Mexico when he was 11. Mr. Vasquez said it was his ability to communicate in English and Spanish with the workers and the supervisors on the farms in Watsonville that helped him move up from being a fruit picker to becoming a supervisor.
But it was not an easy ascent. In 1989, Mr. Vasquez worked as a supervisor during the day and in the fields at night. “If I slept nine hours in five days it was a lot,” he said.
By the 1990s, he supervised more than 2,500 farm employees, and by 2000 he had become part owner of the business. “You have to work hard for the American dream, but it is possible to achieve,” he said.
Sergio Silva, 53, is the chief executive of Rancho Espinoza in Salinas, Calif., a company that grows and distributes calla lily bulbs under the name Coastal Callas. Mr. Silva, whose parents obtained green cards after being guest workers in the California agriculture business, came here from Mexico when he was 13. After struggling to learn English, he dropped out of high school in the 10th grade and went to work in the Salinas Valley, “doing any field work you can think of,” he said.
At 22, Mr. Silva got a job at a vegetable transplant production company, where seeds are started indoors and later moved to fields. It was owned by two venture capitalists, and he worked his way up from dropping seeds in the soil to operating machines and supervising. By 1994 he had invested $15,000 of his savings to buy shares in the company, and he ultimately became its president.
Today he and his partner, Adrian Espinoza, 36, a first-generation Mexican-American, have invested $1.4 million of their own money into the flower company.
The majority of Hispanic-owned agricultural businesses are family-run like Mr. Vasquez’s; he employs his daughters to help him run the business. Jose R. Fernandez, the president of Fernandez Brothers, a strawberry grower for Naturipe Farms in Salinas, whose clients include Stop and Shop, Costco and Safeway, expects his 19-year-old son to go into the business.
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