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Finding the Balance for Farmland Success

Daniel Zinnel knows what owners and operators of farms need. His family owned one. He knows what farm workers want, too. He was one. Now he tries to find ways so both succeed.

Zinnel is the CEO of Proteus, Inc., a multistate nonprofit that supports agricultural workers, their families and farmers. The organization focuses on Iowa, Nebraska, and Indiana. Although, some of the farm workers the group assists spend at least some of their time working in additional states in the United States.   

“I remember the smell of food stamps when we had actual physical food stamps before the cards that are used now for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits,” Zinnel said as he recalled his days as a boy growing up on his family’s farm in rural Calhoun County, Iowa.

His town of Pomeroy had a population of about 500 people, so self-reliance was ingrained in farm families. But the 1980s were challenging, so Zinnel’s family also needed government assistance to meet its needs.

That experience built the foundational balance that guides Zinnel for the organization that began in 1979.

“It’s a delicate balance,” Zinnel said. “One of the values that I feel like has been instilled in me is humility. And I know a lot of farmers, a lot of families in agriculture are very proud people who have that mentality of hard work…and feel like they’re going to work hard. They’re going to get themselves out of whatever situation might happen to them."

He could say the same about the agricultural workers that he encounters. They are committed to hard work and providing for themselves and their families. Some are migrants, don’t speak English as the primary language, and often lack the health, education and support system that they need to build their career.

“Farmworkers are some of the most incredible people I've had the opportunity to engage with. They are some of the most hardworking, diligent, joyful humans that I've had the privilege to experience interacting with,” Zinnel said.

“We’ve had some slight alterations throughout the years as an organization, but one thing has stayed the same – the centering of farmworkers and their families’ needs.”

Daniel Zinnel, Proteus CEO, describing the group’s mission on its website

The National Agricultural Workers Survey produced by the U.S. Department of Labor (the most recent report that we could find covers interviews with farmworkers from 2019-2020) showed the high concentration of farmworkers who originated from other countries.

“Almost two-thirds (63%) of farmworkers interviewed in fiscal years 2019–2020 were born in Mexico, 30 percent were born in the United States or Puerto Rico, 5 percent were born in Central America, and the remainder originated from various other regions, including South America, the Caribbean, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Seventy-eight percent of all farmworkers were Hispanic. Among U.S.-born farmworkers, 32 percent were Hispanic. In terms of race, nearly one-third of farmworkers self-identified as White (33%), and nearly two-thirds categorized their race with an ‘other’ response (66%). Ten percent of farmworkers were self-identified as indigenous.” 

Zinnel tries to focus on the needs and increased opportunities for advancement for farmland workers he encounters through Proteus’ outreach programs. He tries to stay out of the politics that impact the lives of many of the workers and farmland owners.

But he is not obtuse. Zinnel knows that the agricultural community would be stronger if Congress would pass immigration reform, whatever that would be. Workers and employers need certainty.

Here is his advice to members of Congress and the hope that they will finally take the responsibility to do something:

“I think it's with any issue…talk to the people who are impacted and engage in a conversation with them. I think so many people's eyes would be opened if they came out to a migrant camp or came out to a field to see farm workers working a 12-hour day and the most extreme heat conditions they could even imagine. But I think we need to engage in conversations and take the lead from those who are most impacted to hear human stories. I think we need a human approach to most issues that are going on in our country.”


American Farmland Owner Hayfields mountains


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