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This we know: You can’t feed the growing world population without farmers. But there are serious questions today about who will actually be able to take on the job a few decades from now. Farmers are getting older, yes, but technological, cultural and political forces also are bringing immense change to those people who commit to building their lives around the land.In this special report, Harvest Public Media looks at how some of those forces may play out over the next few years.

Blending Of Cultures May Be Blueprint For Growth

Sioux County, in northwest Iowa, is known for its Dutch pastries. The landscape is dotted with Lutheran and reform churches.  But today, Catholic churches and tortillerias are creeping into the landscape — signs of the new residents joining this vibrant community.

In Sioux County, as in a scattering of communities across the Midwest, Hispanic immigrants are working in meat processing plants, dairies, egg-laying facilities and hog barns. In fact, the majority of U.S. farm laborers today were born outside the U.S.

And while some of parts of the rural Midwest are hollowing out, areas like Sioux County, and its biggest city Sioux Center, are actually growing as immigrant populations move in to take jobs that otherwise employers cannot fill.

Sioux Center’s population has grown 17 percent, and the county is up 7 percent over the last decade.   Meanwhile, government figures indicate 91 of Iowa’s 99 counties have declined by about 9 percent over the last three decades. 

So no surprise, Sioux Center looks very different than many other rural communities in Iowa. But although this area may well offer a glimpse of the farming community of the future, the melding of cultures is not always easy.

About two-thirds of the 15 workers at the 600-cow Winding Meadows Dairy, in nearby Rock Valley, Iowa, are Latino. Owner Terry van Maanen attributes that to the job demands of an operation that runs 24 hours a day, every day of the week -- even on Christmas.   

“You get people apply for a job here, and 'Oh, weekends and nights?' -- oh, no, not interested,” Van Maanen said. 

Some of the staff have been with him more than 10 years.

“I honestly think I could not run my business if all these, the guys that are working for me, were to leave and I had to fill them with non-Hispanic help,” he said. “I think I'd have to close the door.”

Van Maanen said everyone gets along well in the workplace, even though not all employees speak English. But outside of work, the Anglo and Latino cultures have been slower to come together, he said.

“The schools, I think, kind of bring everybody together, when their families have kids that go to the community school, I think it gives us a common entity to circle around,” he said.

Luis Campos, the parlor manager at Winding Meadows, said it took him a while to adjust to Iowa.

“At first, yeah it's too hard for me. Especially when I was single,” he said. “But now I got a kids -- my kids now they like here.”

Campos came to the U.S. illegally but he married a U.S. citizen and got his papers. He is involved in the Latino community, leading Mexican totonaca dancing at a local Catholic church and teaching Sunday school to kindergarteners.   

Enrique Luevano also really likes living in Iowa.  Originally from Mexico, he's lived here for 15 years now, and worked his way up to a supervisor at the pork processing plant Natural Food Holdings.   He said Latino and Anglo cultures are still fairly separate.

 “We respect each other, that's what is nice about here, you don't hear about people fighting because of the color of their skin.  Here everybody minds their own business, and away we go,” he said.

Luevano is now a legal resident. But many others live in constant fear, community advocates say. They've established families and lives here, but if they're pulled over coming back from the grocery store, they could be deported within days.

Still there are signs Hispanics are making a home here.  There are bilingual churches, local volunteers teach English night classes, and law enforcement has had training on working in a diverse community.  

And these new residents are an important part of the community -- and its future, said Gary Malenke, the president of the Natural Food Holdings pork processing plant.

“I think people believe that ‘oh, these immigrants are stealing all these jobs,’ ” he said. “We don't see that here.”

Malenke said there's a real need for laborers — in dairies, hog confinements, poultry farms and general construction, too.

Not only are immigrants helping buoy the farm economy, but their children are American citizens -- they're part of church communities and schools and sports teams. 

“There's a lot of progress in these communities, I mean in Sioux Center they're going to build a hospital, a $48 million hospital.  And that's the kind of things that are happening in these communities, which tells you that businesses are doing well,” he said.

And when communities do well — it gives everybody options. The kids of these immigrant workers – just like other rural kids in the Midwest, are not all going into farm work.  Some want to be doctors, teachers and business owners.  And just like generations before — because of their parents' hard work, they'll have that opportunity.

Check out our interactive map below, which shows the changing (and often growing) Hispanic population in Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska.

The darker the color, the larger the percentage increase in the Hispanic population in the the county.

Credit: Source: Census Bureau (Jeremy Bernfeld/Harvest Public Media)

Harvest Public Media, based at KCUR, is a collaborative public media project that reports on important agriculture issues in the Midwest. Funded by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Harvest Public Media has reporters at six NPR member stations in the region. To learn more, visit www.harvestpublicmedia.org, likeHarvestPublic Media on Facebook or follow @HarvestPM on Twitter.

Kathleen Masterson was Harvest Public Media’s reporter based at Iowa Public Radio in Ames, Iowa. At Bowdoin College in Maine, Kathleen studied English and Environmental Studies and was torn as to which one she’d have to “choose” when finding a job. She taught high school English for a few years, and then swung back to science when she traveled to rural Argentina to work on a bird research project. She returned home to study science journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After graduate school she went on to work as digital producer for NPR’s science desk before joining Harvest.
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