Q&A: Katherine Marcano-Bell, Dominican Republic native and Iowa farmer

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Iowa apparently has little in common with the Dominican Republic, but the Midwestern state and the Caribbean island nation were both voted home by Katherine Marcano-Bell.

“When I think of my childhood, I think of playing marbles and jumping rope, going to a parochial school and going to mass. There were hardships, but there was also a lot of love from a large extended family. It was amazing,” she says.

Marcano-Bell’s family, however, believed that living in the United States would provide him with more opportunities. So she moved with her mother to New York when she was 11 years old.

“I was taken from a very sheltered environment into an inner-city public school system,” she says. “It was terrifying at times.”

Eventually, she developed friendships that helped her through those difficult years. She now looks back fondly on her time in New York. “It was my first home in the United States,” she says. “Living there has deeply shaped me.”

Still, she wanted a fresh start after graduating from high school. “I met people who went to college in Iowa, so that’s how I made that connection,” she says. “I moved to Cedar Rapids, attended Kirkwood Community College, and graduated from Mount Mercy University. My original plan was to graduate from college, get a graduate degree, and move outside of Iowa for more experiences and travel.

SF: How did you become a farmer?

KMB: I worked two jobs while putting myself through college. Because of my work, my social circle was limited. So I went to Match.com and met my husband that way. He had moved to Kansas City after college and had just returned to Iowa to farm.

His father and two uncles farmed and raised cattle. My husband didn’t want to raise cattle, but without them he couldn’t farm because there was no space. So he contracted with a local integrator to finish the pigs. We now have five facilities where we finish approximately 25,000 hogs each year. We also cultivate cropland.

Contracting [hogs] has been a lifesaver, because it’s our main income. We are also not as sensitive to market fluctuations, as we get paid whether the market is up or down. This has helped us tremendously on the crop side, as pig manure reduces fertilizer bills.

SF: Have you and your husband considered expanding into other businesses?

KMB: We thought of setting up a nursery, which represents a greater investment. Even though we like pigs, we decided that they would consume us and that we would have no life outside the farm. We agree to be a finishing operation only.

SF: What challenges do you and your husband face?

KMB: Work. Our immigration system is so messed up. It shouldn’t be easier to cross the border or extend your visa than to get a work visa for agricultural workers. There are also rules for everything. It’s a lot to follow and it’s quite overwhelming. Medical insurance is another. The number one thing that will bankrupt someone in this country is medical bills, so you must have medical insurance. You cannot get a loan from a bank if you are not properly insured. All of this isn’t that romanticized take on farming on Hallmark TV.

SF: What was agriculture like in the Dominican Republic?

KMB: The boundaries were often blurred between rural and urban areas. Although I was born and raised in the capital, some of my neighbors had chickens, pigs and barnyard horses. People were working in the sugar cane fields right next to our house.

SF: Was it difficult moving from an urban area to a rural area?

KMB: It was easier for me to transition to southeast Iowa [from New York City] than it was for me to go from the Dominican Republic to New York. Yet when I moved from Cedar Rapids to where I currently live, I thought there was no movie theater nearby! I also love going salsa dancing, and where was I going to do that? I learned to drive, and it made me feel more independent, because you had to drive so far for everything. But when you love someone, you’ll do just about anything for them.

SF: Do you use social media?

KMB: Social media is a tool, but it can be misused. Social media is great because, as farmers, families tend to be more isolated. It helps you stay in touch with what’s going on, but it can also stress you out a lot. I am selective in my participation, because I have other priorities. If I feel like I can stand up for agriculture, I certainly take the time.

SF: The country is increasingly ethnically diverse. Does farming?

KMB: It almost feels like everyone is talking about a big game about how we can diversify as an industry. How to encourage women to come forward? How to welcome minorities? Many times it’s just a talking point that doesn’t materialize. Sometimes I feel like people only want to talk to you when they want to get something from you, like clicks on a website. I spoke to other Latinos who farm or have started their own farmers market or restaurants. We are just not another token. We are serious people, doing our own thing.

SF: What do Dominican citizens think of the United States?

KMB: The Dominican Republic has excellent relations with the United States. Iowans traveled to the Dominican Republic to help growers detect African swine fever. There’s not a producer I’ve talked to there that doesn’t know Iowa.

Background

Katherine Marcano-Bell initially worked off the farm, but now works with her husband, Brandon, and their two sons, Landon (6) and Owen (4), near Keota, Iowa.

“It surprises a lot of people that women are actually involved in agriculture,” she says. “They are often the ones who make most of the farming decisions. I wear different hats because I’m also a mom and a housewife, but who doesn’t these days? »

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