Review: The New American Farmer: Immigration, Race, and the Struggle for Sustainability

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Sarah Pearlman

Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern, MIT Press, 2019. xv, 173 pp.

In The New American Farmer: Immigration, Race, and the Struggle for Sustainability, author Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern details the struggles and dreams of Latinx immigrant farmers in the United States who have transitioned from working in the fields to operating their own farms. Minkoff-Zern situates the emergence of the Latinx farm owner-operators within the racialized history of agrarian labor and farm ownership in the U.S., where forms of institutional racism have long worked to limit the upward mobility of Latinx farmworkers. Through interviews with Latinx farmers and government agencies like the USDA, Minkoff-Zern argues that more inclusive, alternative food movements and more accessible technical support from government entities and NGOs will be essential to supporting these immigrant farmers. She further argues that immigrant farmers are putting food sovereignty ideals into practice by prioritizing growing food for their own families above profits and reclaiming productive power from their prior employers in industrial agricultural operations. Throughout the book, Minkoff-Zern shows that attention to the experiences and practices of these immigrant farmers must be central to a comprehensive understanding of the changes occurring in the U.S. agricultural sector and what the future of U.S. agriculture might hold.

Minkoff-Zern’s study is situated within the history of racialized agrarian labor in the United States. She introduces the “agricultural ladder” model—a model that describes how farm workers become farm owners through upward mobility—to question whether all farmers really have opportunities for advancement based solely on their effort. For Minkoff-Zern, career advancement for Latinx farmworkers has often been out of reach due to what she calls Mexican exceptionalism. Mexican exceptionalism refers to the belief that Mexican and other Latinx laborers are especially suited for farm labor and do not want to advance their careers in farming. Rather, this discourse holds that, due to the geographic proximity of their countries of origin, Latinx migrant workers desire to return to their home country rather than engage fully in U.S. life, unlike other immigrant groups. This racist discourse has been cemented in immigration and labor policy in the U.S. and has long acted as a barrier to Latinx workers ascending the agricultural ladder to become farm owners.

Due to racially inequitable practices and policies shaping the agricultural sector, Latinx people who do manage to become farmers continue to face many obstacles, particularly when it comes to accessing USDA and other governmental support programs. For example, Minkoff-Zern demonstrates how the USDA’s requirements of standardization and documentation largely exclude Latinx farmers whose knowledge of agricultural practices is shared and recorded informally, mostly through word-of-mouth rather than formal agricultural education or meticulous paperwork. She explains that planting and cultivation schedules do not fit into the standardized format that government paperwork requires. While there has been an increasing amount of attention paid to the growth of and access to culturally relevant food for immigrant populations in the United States, Minkoff-Zern illuminates how government agencies have not given the same attention to issues of culturally relevant growing practices. A lack of translation services, both in-person and for paperwork further exacerbates the cultural divide. The fact that English assistance for white farmers is considered “standard” by the USDA reflects the values and assumptions of government agencies and the dominant culture. Even when these agencies are aware of these shortcomings, they often face substantial time and budgetary constraints to addressing them.

Despite institutional obstacles, the Latinx farmers that Minkoff-Zern interviewed have managed to become farmers, often transplanting and transforming the farming practices of their home countries. Drawing of farmers’ stories, the author shows how Latinx farmers use farming to create a new sense of home, melding their memories of life in Latin America with their realities in the U.S. This homemaking practice counters the Mexican exceptionalism discourse that posits Latinx workers are transient and feel some inexplicable draw to return to their countries of origin rather than build a community in the United States. Rather, Minkoff-Zern finds that the act of farming allows them to connect to their agrarian roots and to have freedom to control their own time and labor. Many farmers expressed a desire to show their children how to farm, pass on a family tradition, and to give their children a skill to fall back on in difficult economic times. Minkoff-Zern argues that the way in which immigrant farmers center family in motivation and in labor further supports the idea that they are enacting a form of food sovereignty in their daily farming practices.

Minkoff-Zern’s examination of immigrant farmers opens the door to broader investigations of how other racially marginalized groups navigate the agricultural system and see themselves in the narrative and culture of farming in the U.S. While the book touches on the history of and current movements surrounding Black farmers briefly, there is space for dialogue between this book and recent work on Black farming traditions and movements with the potential for follow-up work using the author’s methodology that focuses on different racial demographics. Minkoff-Zern does an excellent job highlighting the variety of views, opinions, and challenges that individuals within the Latinx immigrant farmer community experience. Breaking down the monolithic view of different racialized farming groups is essential, and future work could take cues from this book.

The author’s style is engaging and accessible to a variety of audiences. The personal stories of the farmers are woven gracefully throughout the narrative, giving life and energy to Minkoff-Zern’s thesis. The book addresses topics ranging from agroecology and organic practices to labor standards, all of which are tied back to the unique positionality and knowledge of immigrant farmers. This book would be of interest to scholars as well as a valuable text for undergraduate and graduate courses in food studies, geography, sociology, anthropology, political science, and public administration. It would also be a useful supplement to those working in public agencies as well as immigration and food justice activists. Overall, The New American Farmer demonstrates that immigrant farmers are essential actors in the movement for agroecology and must be included in conversations around sustainable agriculture.


Sarah Pearlman is a candidate for a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning at Portland State University. She is especially interested in the ways that urban planners and local governments can shape policy and the physical environment to support equitable access to healthy, good, and culturally important food. She is passionate about food justice and planning mechanisms that support economic opportunities for street vendors, food carts, and farmers.