PIERSON, Fla. -- Benito Baca and Tony Ramos worked in Pierson's ferneries since they were 5.
Children of Mexican immigrants, the boys worked after school, cutting foliage used in flower bouquets.
If one fell behind cutting leaves, the other pitched in so they could make baseball practice, said Baca, who still recalls working in cold, damp clothes after Florida's heavy rains. During summers, he says, the black shades that protect ferns from the sun intensified the humidity underneath.
"It was so humid, you immediately started to sweat. It was so hard to breathe," Baca, 31, said.
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These days, the men's sweat is plowed into their own agricultural businesses. Baca and Ramos are among a growing number of Hispanics in the U.S. who have gone from field hand to farm operator. Baca started a business more than a year ago setting up irrigation systems at local nurseries and new subdivisions.
In 2005, Ramos, 31, started a small nursery in Pierson, where he sells hedges and shrubs to landscaping companies and wholesalers.
"There are a lot more (Hispanic owners) out there than people realize," said Ramos, who this past fall unsuccessfully ran for Pierson Town Council -- historically populated by white fernery owners.
Hispanics claim the highest rate of new farmers in the nation, followed by Asians, said Tirso Moreno, general coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida.
The number of Hispanic farms likely increased because of an increase in the Hispanic population, said Sterling Ivey, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture. In Florida, for example, Hispanics make up about 21 percent of the population, compared with 15 percent a decade ago.
Many immigrant families, especially from Central America and Mexico, have strong farming roots, which likely has contributed to the increase in Hispanic-owned farms, Moreno said.
Meanwhile, the number of Florida's white farmers who traditionally controlled the agriculture industry declined by 10 percent from 2002 to 2007 -- many retiring or selling their businesses to large corporations. Their children no longer want to carry on the family business and instead are moving to urban areas to attend college and get higher-paying jobs.
"That's opened an opportunity for Hispanic immigrants," Moreno said.
Hispanics are playing an important role in strengthening and diversifying the country's farm sector, said Mickie Swisher, an associate professor in the Sustainable Agriculture Department at the University of Florida.
Hispanic farmers are providing American consumers with alternatives to mega-supermarkets and fueling food cooperatives, community-supported farms and farmers markets, Swisher said.
"It's part of the American tradition, having many choices," she said.
Minority farmers have even introduced new fruits and vegetables to the U.S. market. For example, Hispanic and Caribbean farmers provide red turnips and different varieties of chili peppers and greens, Swisher said.
Swisher, director of the University of Florida's Center for Organic Agriculture, conducted a study for the U.S. Department of Agriculture on small-scale Hispanic farmers and ranchers and their needs. It focused on California,Florida, New Mexico, Texas and Puerto Rico, which have the highest number of Hispanic farmers.
While the farmers mostly were second-generation Hispanics and spoke English, Swisher said, they were unaware of grants and other government resources available.
Several programs are available for Hispanic farmers, Ivey said, including the Hispanic American Outreach Program run by the USDA Farm Service Agency to help farmers and ranchers with disaster recovery and loan opportunities.
The federal government hasn't done a good job of informing Hispanics about farm loans, crop insurance and other resources that help start, expand or keep their businesses afloat, said Rudy Arredondo, president of the National Latino Farmers and Ranchers Trade Association.
His decadeold organization, started after the nation's number of Hispanic farmers jumped by 52 percent, is trying to change that.
He helped write the 2008 Farm Bill, which added money for outreach and grant and loan programs for minority farmers.
In November, the USDA awarded his association a grant for more than $300,000 to improve Hispanics' access to federal programs and help them succeed.