By JENALIA MORENO | Houston Chronicle
At a time when many other farmers are giving up, Humberto Moctezuma dreams of increasing production on his cactus farm.
“If the market demands it, I can grow with the market,” Moctezuma, 48, said on a recent morning as he examined his crop, fertilized by chicken manure.
He sells the cactus pads, nopales in Spanish, to mostly Hispanic customers who cook the vegetable, eating it with eggs, salads or meat.
Moctezuma is one of a growing number of Hispanic farmers in the nation. Between 1997 and 2002, the number of Hispanic-run farms grew 51 percent. At the same time, the number of farms run by African-Americans and Anglos declined, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Like Moctezuma, many Hispanic farmers are immigrants who picked up the skill in their home countries. Moctezuma’s father and brother work a 130-acre cactus farm called Rancho El Periocolo in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, where Moctezuma was raised.
“Farm labor is a very common point of entry for Hispanics who are foreign-born who are entering the U.S. labor market,” said William Kandel, a sociologist for the statistics service.
And for many Hispanic immigrants, owning land is a symbol of prestige, said Mario Delgado, a U.S. Department of Agriculture rural development specialist in Georgia, where he is helping to organize a March conference on Hispanic farm operators.
“A lot of Latinos have their roots in the land,” said Delgado, who added that Hispanic farmers rarely seek government subsidies and other assistance because they don’t know about such programs or don’t want to deal with more paperwork. “They really go for it with gusto.”
Some Anglo farmers are quitting the business because it’s hard work that pays little.
“There’s just so many opportunities out there to do other things,” said Kevin Kleb, who once raised mustard greens and eggplants in Klein. “You’re trying to tie the greens in the cold and at $7 a pound, you think, ‘What’s the point?’ “
Many farmers no longer want to put up with the risks inherent to the profession, Kandel said. Fluctuating crop prices, droughts and pests plague small farmers who are increasingly competing with agribusinesses.
“It presents an opportunity for people who are willing to incur those kinds of risks and the challenges of running a small farm,” Kandel said.
Moctezuma decided to take on those risks after years of importing produce from Mexico and facing slowdowns at the border.
In 1989, he began his weekly ritual of driving his pickup truck laden with nopales from Hidalgo to the farmers market on Airline Drive near the 610 Loop.
By then the farmers market had already become a meeting place for Hispanic vendors and their primarily Hispanic customers. It’s a place where haggling over the price of tomatillos, tamarindos and Topo Chico carbonated beverages is done primarily in Spanish. Vendors sell produce raised in Mexico, California, Florida or the Rio Grande Valley, and little of it is grown in Harris County or the surrounding counties.
“All that land is getting developed,” said Kleb, who is now the manager of the Farmer’s Marketing Association of Houston. “There’s not much ag left in this area anymore.”
Now mostly Hispanic
But back in 1942, when the market opened as a cooperative, it was supplied by local German, Italian and Japanese farmers. By the 1980s, Hispanic vendors and buyers began frequenting the market, and today 90 percent of the customers are Hispanic, Kleb said.
And many of these customers are looking for products from their homelands. Mexico City native Reina Hernandez shopped for produce with her children as she sipped coconut juice out of a plastic baggie.
El Salvador native Manuel Escobar and his sister drive from Huntsville every two weeks to buy chayote, pineapple and boxes of mangoes and other
Fresher and cheaper
“It’s more fresh and a little cheaper,” he said.
For Moctezuma, the farmers market was an ideal place to sell his nopales.
“It’s a tradition for us” to eat nopales, said Elvira Torres, a native of Guanajuato, Mexico, who purchased more than six pounds of Moctezuma’s nopales from the market one morning.
Small farmers like Moctezuma are realizing that by growing such niche products, they can make a living.
“I think that is increasingly the trend among a lot of small farms. They do a lot of gourmet products and a lot of expensive vegetables and specialty crops,” Kandel said. “I would bet on nopales before I would bet on carrots.”
So far, Moctezuma, who believes the market for nopales is growing beyond Hispanics, has cactuses on just one acre of his 98-acre farm near the Big Thicket’s Big Sandy Creek Unit. In two months, he plans to plant three more acres. And he envisions ultimately clearing away the tall pine trees that fill his property and replacing them with rows of cactuses and a patch of artichokes.
“The American market is very anxious to try new things,” Moctezuma said.
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