At age 17, Sergio Marquez left his hometown in the Mexican state of Michoacán and traveled to the small U.S. town of Wapato, located amid the fertile farmlands of Washington's Yakima Valley. Even in Mexico, he had heard about the valley's famed apple trees—and the work that could be found picking, pruning, and thinning them.
It took him a week, several bus rides, and one coyote-led walk across the border to reach Wapato. Just two months later, he was deported, after a traffic stop brought his illegal status to light.
So he made the illicit journey again. Soon enough, he found himself living in a trailer with 19 other guys from Michoacán and taking up the farm-working life common to so many of his compatriots. His first paycheck, for three days of pruning in the hot sun, came to $80. It wasn't quite the easy life he expected in America.
But 33 years later, his life looks very different. He still puts in long hours on the farm—but it's a farm he owns, all 106 acres of it, neatly planted with rows of Fujis, Cameos, Honeycrisps, Galas, and other varieties. Last year, he says, he made about $100,000 in profit. This year he's leased another 85 acres, and expects to nearly double his apple harvest to more than six million pounds. During his busy seasons, he employs about 50 workers, nearly all Mexican immigrants like him. Marquez himself became a citizen, thanks to his marriage to a native-born American in 1981. (She later left him, he says).
Gregarious and mustachioed, Marquez (pronounced mar-KEZ) surveyed his orchard on a recent day and reminisced about the path that led him to become his own boss. When he first arrived at this farm as a laborer some 15 years ago, "trees were dying and there were a lot of empty spots," he says. The owner, John Hunter, had other businesses in town, and, as Marquez tells it, the foreman at the time had neglected the land. Marquez essentially took over, planting many more trees per row to increase the harvest. Impressed, Hunter made Marquez foreman.
Later, when the aging farm owner decided he was too occupied with other affairs to keep up the place—and his children were disinclined, or unprepared, to take it over—he turned to the one man he knew he could rely on: Marquez.
In 2004, Hunter sold his foreman the farm (including all equipment and a modest ranch house on the property) for $400,000, a bargain price. It was still a considerable sum for Marquez, which he raised with help from a low-interest loan program run by the federal Farm Service Agency. When Hunter died a few years later, Marquez, his second wife Lilia (also from Michoacán), and their four children started spending even more time at the Hunter homestead, located a quarter-mile down the road and occupied by 66-year-old widow Judy, a grown daughter, and a 10-year-old granddaughter.
To this day, Marquez cleans the Hunters' pool, sends his workers over to mow the lawn, and has his daughter babysit Judy's granddaughter. "He's family," Judy says of the man she calls "Sarge" and whom she describes as a "real, honest Christian." Indeed, Marquez attends Catholic services two nights a week, plus Sundays, in Wapato. On a breezy June evening, he traded his chinos and blue button-down for a black dress shirt and pants, and sat in the parish's second-from-the-front pew with his wife. They have two sons in college, and their 17-year-old daughter was recently crowned beauty queen in the neighboring town of Harrah.
In other words, you could hardly find someone who better embodies the small-town values of farm, family, and faith than Sergio Marquez. And he's far from alone. These days, in the Yakima Valley—acclaimed not only for its apples but its cherries, peaches, asparagus, and hops—nearly 20 percent of farmers are Hispanic.
Latino immigrants, of course, have long supplied the grueling, low-paying work that a lot of agriculture requires, and that native-born Americans seemingly find beneath them. Now these immigrants are managing to buy farms and put down roots, just as the American ethos says they should be able to do.
"Latino farmers are taking over agriculture in the state of Washington," says Malaquías Flores, who runs a program at Washington State University that helps Latinos access farm loans and manage their businesses.
He says WSU started the program nine years ago because it was looking to foster growth in small-scale farming, and found that Latinos were mostly the ones wanting to get into the business. (The program only assists immigrants who are here legally.)
Nationwide, according to the latest figures, the number of Hispanic farmers increased 14 percent between 2002 and 2007—twice the rate of growth among farmers overall, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The West Coast, New Mexico, and Texas saw the biggest increases in Latino farmers, who also have become a presence in Arizona, Florida, Texas, and Hawaii.
"It's well-recognized by many of us that the future of the industry is with Hispanic—mostly Mexican—immigrants," says Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, a Yakima-based organization representing farmers around the state. "They know the business. They love it. And that's who it's being passed on to in many respects."
Hispanic immigrants are propping up small-town real-estate markets too, even if they have to dig into what Nestor Hernandez, a realtor and president of Yakima County's Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, calls their "mattress money." Indeed, Hispanics are virtually the only people buying property in a whole series of farming towns east of the Cascade mountains.
Meanwhile, many of the politicians who like to celebrate small towns and family farms in their political rhetoric are also the ones calling for a crackdown on illegals. Speaking at the GOP convention in 2008, for instance, Sarah Palin famously declared: "We grow good people in our small towns...They're the ones who do some of the hardest work in America, who grow our food and run our factories and fight our wars." (She was, in part, quoting the journalist Westbrook Pegler.) But this May, she stood with Arizona Governor Jan Brewer at a press conference and declared her support for the new state law requiring local law enforcement to question suspected illegal immigrants.