The number of Hispanic-owned farms is rapidly increasing in the United States, and it's thanks in part to the fact that about 15 years ago minority farmers successfully sued the U.S. government for discriminating against them.

Since that lawsuit, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has stepped up their outreach to minority farmers (a group referred to using the unironic, bureaucratic-speak term, “socially disadvantaged farmers”) which has been a small contributor to the growth. But activists and plaintiffs charge that the changes may seem monumental but still leave minorities out of key opportunities.

“We’ve made forward progress but we still have a ways to go,” explained Lorette Picciano, director of Rural Coalition, an organization that represents small farmers and producers in the U.S. and Mexico.

Latinos are the largest minority segment among farm owners with the greatest concentrations living in Texas, New Mexico and California. They are have become key providers of certain produce. For example, they own two-thirds of the strawberry farms in California.

Though Latinos only own a little more than three percent of all the farms in the U.S., there has been a 21 percent increase in ownership in the last 5 years, according to the Census of Agriculture. That increase is double that of other groups, and it counters the overall decrease in farm ownership in the country.

Most of the Latino-owned farms are small or mid-sized. That kind of farm presents challenges because it doesn’t always bring in enough money to support families. Spouses and relatives have other jobs to supplement family income.

Because of the investment required to begin a farm and the delay in income in the start up phase, access to loans and credit are critical. The discrimination lawsuit in the 1990s was about minorities being denied access to capital.

Alfonzo Abeyta’s family has been farming in Colorado for five generations. They bought their land in 1963 from a retiring Anglo farmer. Currently, the average farmer is older than about 65, so the USDA has launched recruitment efforts to bring in younger people.

Abeyta, whose 500 acres include a farm that grows alfalfa and various grains, and a ranch for sheep and cattle, was turned down for a loan. At that time, he had a job off the farm for extra income which was the reason given to him for why the loan was denied. An Anglo neighbor, he said, got a similar farming loan despite also serving as a school superintendent.

He researched and documented instances like this for a decade and decided along with 81 other Latino farmers from across the country to join in a 1996 lawsuit. It followed a class-action suit filed by African-American farmers. The Latino one didn’t earn class-action status, which limited their bargaining rights, and it was combined with a separate suit filed by women.

Just before 2000, Latinos and other minority farmers were granted settlements for more than $3.5 billion. Latino and women farmers and were awarded $1.3 billion of that which will be divvied between the two groups.

“They are still working on the settlement,” said Abeyta. “I understand the money is coming, but I don’t know when. Maybe not in my lifetime.”

Meanwhile, activists say that the lawsuit has already led to some changes. Following the settlements, a $20 million grant was paid out to organizations such as Rural Coalition reach out to farmers and help them access USDA funding and resources. 

That was welcomed by activists and seen as a step in the right direction but that funding has been dramatically reduced, an indication that a change in culture hasn’t fully taken, said Rudy Arredondo, farmer and advocate who works with the Rural Coalition and other organizations. 

The settlements, however, didn’t include any repercussions for individuals involved in the discriminatory practices, and there aren’t uniform monitoring procedures to ensure that loans and credit are equitably distributed.

“The increase in Latino farm owners is occurring in spite of all this,” said Arredondo, who added that larger economic forces, such as NAFTA, have led to new farm owners who have worked their way up from being laborers.

Abeyta said in Colorado, where his farm is located, he has seen some progress in the way the USDA handles minorities. Though it isn't a dramatic number, he said he knows of a few young Latino farm owners who have been able to get seed money, literally.

“It has gotten better for all of us,” he said.

Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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