Today, Hispanic and Latino farmers make up 7.6% of all farmers in the U.S., up from 6.3% five years ago. Virginia ranks 10th overall in the nation, with nearly 1,000 Hispanic and Latino producers in the Commonwealth.

Leonel Castillo is here to help them succeed.

Working for Virginia Cooperative Extension, which works in conjunction with both Virginia Tech and Virginia State University’s (VSU) College of Agriculture, Castillo serves as the program assistant charged with Hispanic and Latino outreach.

Castillo, who studied agronomy, soil science and agricultural economics at Louisiana Tech University, had already amassed an extensive resume before beginning his current post. “I worked in the banana industry (internationally with Chiquita, Dole and Fyffes) for 48 years,” Castillo explained. “I also worked several years in between for the Honduran Foundation of Agricultural Research (FHIA) assisting small farmers, and attending international consultancy work for USAID, the U.S. State Department and a few other nonprofits.”

Castillo then moved to Virginia and was introduced to the Small Farm Outreach Program (SFOP) and VSU professor Dr. Reza Rafi. “My dual position with SFOP is as the state program assistant for Hispanic outreach and as a drone pilot,” he said. Castillo conducts mapping of farms for crop surveys and planning.

Helping Virginia’s Hispanic farmers

Leonel Castillo

According to Castillo, the farmers who approach him for assistance come from a variety of backgrounds and are in very different situations. “The Hispanic farmers that I work with in Virginia have different beginnings,” he said. “Some started as farmworkers, others started by buying and selling produce and then started farming as well. Still others were ranchers in their countries of origin and had the vocation of dealing with beef cattle. Some started working in construction and then began a small cattle operation. Some have married women who like gardening and started helping their spouse while holding an outside job. Quite a few are veterans who decided to give farming a try, and then there are the academics who hold a scholarly job and have started getting into small farming as an investment.”

Castillo said that while the number of Hispanic and Latino farmers in Virginia is small overall, he finds that the desire to branch out into farming is very strong in that community. “Most Hispanics [in Virginia] work in construction, but many have an urge to farm. Those who are interested need help and advice from programs like SFOP,” he said.

Asked what the paramount issues of concern are for the Hispanic and Latino farming community in the Old Dominion State, Castillo said there are many. “Very few own land. I’m working with only three right now who own their own land. And they’re very small plots. The others are renting or sharecropping with local farmers or land owners,” he explained. “Another issue is lack of knowledge about the USDA and Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) benefits available, and lack of knowledge of how the system works overall.”

He said his strategy is to work closely with farmers in one-on-one relationships. He’s found that the program’s beneficiaries respond better after they get to know him. “It takes time to develop the trust that makes good relationships,” he noted.

Services and programs available to Hispanic and Latino farmers include facilitating connections with representatives from local, state and federal government agencies, financial services experts, federal and state agency websites, experts in all areas of ag production, diverse models of farm production and operation, available grant, incentive and funding opportunities, training and educational opportunities, marketing resources and planting schedules.

SFOP offers several important workshops to beginning farmers. These include a monthly “Beginning Farmer Orientation” course, a “Whole Farm Planning” workshop, a financial management workshop and a workshop covering farm taxation.

“SFOP has had a great level of acceptance among Hispanics and underserved minorities. VSU’s success has prompted strategic alliances with National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina. There have also been great partnerships with Virginia’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts. All of these partnerships have helped in opening the doors of the regional Extension offices to small farmers throughout the state of Virginia,” he said.

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by Enrico Villamaino