Immigrants and Farmers


Farm Notes

Whatever your politics are, I’m guessing you’ll be glad when this election season is over. Even on the farm, we are not immune from the daily news reports. To be honest, I’m very much looking forward to getting back to some sense of normality!

Hmong tapestry depicting farming in the homeland

Hmong tapestry depicting farming in the homeland

Immigration and its effects on our economy and overall safety have gotten a lot of attention lately. I know it has been a hot topic of conversation, especially since the day my youngest daughter came home from school with a bombshell of a report. But more on that later…

The simple topic of immigration has gotten me thinking about the strong link between immigrants and farming. Without a doubt, modern agriculture relies heavily on migrant labor. If you’ve eaten today, chances are very good that food was picked by someone born outside the US. Many of our Mohawk Valley dairies, vegetable farms and orchards have highly valued employees from Mexico, Guatemala and beyond. They simply could not operate without them.

The land my family now farms was settled by immigrants over 150 years ago. The barns that keep our animals safe and the house in which we sleep were all built by immigrants. Our small hill, where a dozen small family farms once prospered, was settled by Russian, Polish, and Austrian immigrants in the early 1900s. Names like Salanco, Popka, Gallik, Chlus, Sokerka, Lyga and Keblish are still on mailboxes today. They settled in small communities, close to one another so they could support each other. They established a Russian Orthodox Church in town so they could worship together. They held neighborhood picnics in the orchard below our hay field between chores and milking.

My own family history is that of immigrant farmers. Hoffs, Muellers and Enderles emigrated from southern Germany and eventually established dairy farms in central Wisconsin. They did much the same as their Polish, Czech and Irish neighbors did—established small communities to support one another and keep old traditions alive.

They all came for lots of reasons, the greatest of which was to build a better life for their families and future generations. It wasn’t easy saying goodbye to all that they knew in their home countries—including traditions, friends, and their native language.

They brought what they could with them, including their favorite foods. Having grown up in an area with German roots, I had never heard of “halupki,” “pierogi” or “blini.” I grew up with kuchen, strudel, sauerbraten, spaetzle, and loved anything ending in “wurst”…bratwurst, knockwurst, even liverwurst! When I think of the wonderful foods our Mohawk Valley is known for, each of them has their origins in ethnic cooking—dishes brought back (and sometimes reimagined) from the old world, be it Italy, Lebanon, or Vietnam.

Our farm’s first and most ardent supporters have been immigrants. Vera Keblish, a wonderful neighbor and daughter of immigrants, was our very first customer. She was the first to buy our eggs and it was her excitement over our meat chickens that inspired us to raise more. Vera, who sadly passed away a few years ago, was thrilled to recapture a piece of her childhood through our foods. Members of the Bosnian community in Utica have also been loyal customers. While most were not farmers back home, their tradition is to buy direct from the farmer. Several of these customers have told me they are uncomfortable buying meat in the grocery store: “Much better to see the animal first; to see how it was cared for, to see what it ate.” Buying directly from us, on the farm, has allowed them to hold on to a small but important connection to their homeland.

This pattern has been repeated over and over throughout our nation’s short history; the names, locations and dates change, but the story remains much the same. Latinos have a strong presence throughout the American Southwest, Swedes in Minnesota, and Cubans in Florida—making each of these areas unique in their foods and traditions.

Oftentimes it was great hardship that brought these immigrants to the US; think of Irish immigrants in the late 1800s escaping the potato famine. And of course there were hundreds of thousands brought here against their will as part of the slave trade. In the late 1970s, my home state of Wisconsin welcomed Hmong refugees chased out by war in Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. These people were farmers, too. Not only did they suffer the casualties of war, they left behind all that they knew and then found themselves in a starkly different climate in which to farm. (Some tried raising fish in their bathtubs!) My husband’s family was one of many that opened up their farms so that these newcomers could hold onto some of their traditions and identity. The Jones farm outside of Oshkosh hosted pigeons and some of the strangest-looking vegetables any Midwesterner had ever seen! But it was an incredible opportunity for the young Jones boys to learn different approaches to farming, try new foods, and gain invaluable perspective on life’s much bigger picture.

Indeed, it is easy to forget our nation’s immigration story, especially if your ancestors came here multiple generations ago. But unless you’re a Native American, you, too are an immigrant. As the generations progress, we eventually forget many of the old-world traditions and lose the language. I know only a few words in German, my children know none. It is something I find simultaneously sad and a simple, inescapable fact of life: We all slowly but surely lose those wonderful pieces of our heritage…and forget our own immigrant roots.

So, back to the bombshell my 10-year-old daughter recently dropped on us. With wide eyes, she told us that one of her school friends announced that she “hated immigrants.” My children know I don’t care for the word “hate.” (If you don’t like mushrooms, fine, but don’t tell me you “hate” them.) It’s a strong word. So when I heard that sentiment come out of my youngest daughter’s mouth, my knees buckled. I felt a little sick to my stomach. “But… I’m an immigrant,” was the first thing I could think to say. “We are all immigrants.” This gave me the chance to talk with my daughter about her own heritage, about that of people all around us. We talked about empathy, about opportunity and hardship, about differences of opinion, about history and what it means to be an American. It was a conversation I never expected to have, but is so clearly needed.