Grappling With a New Farm

Young, Black, First-Generation American Determined to Succeed as a Farm Owner

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Zemua Baptista, 22, stands in front of his eight broiler barns outside of Seward, Nebraska. A first-generation Black American, Baptista is a new young face in Nebraska production agriculture. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

FRIEND, Neb. (DTN) -- Like a lot of children growing up in a small Nebraska town, Zemua Baptista remembers playing with tractors in the living room as a boy -- "carpet farming," as he describes it.

"My mom would always get mad at me over it," he said. "I just always knew I wanted to be a farmer. It's always been what I grew up around and spent all my time doing."

Baptista's dream of becoming an owner of a farm came true last winter when he got his first delivery of broiler chicks from Lincoln Premium Poultry for the eight barns Baptista was able to get built near Seward, Nebraska. Lincoln Premium started contracting with roughly 80 farmers, mainly in eastern Nebraska, to raise broilers for a processing plant that opened in September last year in Fremont, Nebraska.

Zemua (Zem-wah) Baptista was among the first prospective farmers to approach Lincoln Premium Poultry with a business plan and purpose to make his farming dreams come true. He was finishing up his freshman year in college on a wrestling scholarship when he approached company officials with his plan to raise chickens.

"It was a couple of years before we got to break ground on it, but I was one of the first people to sign a contract and start growing birds for them," he said. "It's not something many 18-year-olds begin to think about doing."

FIRST-GENERATION AMERICAN

At age 22, Baptista is just now finishing college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln but has stepped into the world of farm owner not just a first-generation Black farmer, but a first-generation American as well.

Baptista was born in the United States, but his parents came to the U.S. in the late 1990s from Angola. Baptista's father, a Methodist pastor, completed his doctorate degree in Texas. Pastor Paixao Baptista then moved his family to churches in small Nebraska towns before eventually settling in Friend, Nebraska, where Zemua and his siblings were raised. Zemua said his father was attracted to Nebraska because it was similar to the rural areas of Angola where his grandfather had farmed crops such as corn, soybeans and coffee.

In small-town Nebraska, Baptista said he was raised in a town with little diversity outside of his family, but he also said his family was embraced. "I feel like I was raised in the best of both worlds," he said. I grew up in a community that was pretty open arms. My dad was really respected as a minister and my mom as a nurse. We would go to play other teams, and for other kids, I would be the first African American they had ever seen in their lives."

In high school, Baptista made his mark in Nebraska as a star wrestler, winning state championships in three different weight classes from 2014-16 and finishing with a career high-school record of 184-4. He then spent his freshman year redshirting at Iowa State University before transferring back home to Nebraska. Baptista continued to wrestle at UNL, going 47-16 while there. The team ranked as high as No. 2 nationally last spring before COVID-19 cut the season short. Baptista needs one class this fall to complete his degree in agricultural economics.

A COLD CALL

Jessica Kolterman, director of administration for Lincoln Premium Poultry, recalls Baptista cold-calling her office three years ago as he was finishing up his freshman year at Iowa State. She also recognized his name because she follows wrestling and had seen him wrestle in high school. Baptista met with Kolterman and the company's chief operating officer, Walt Schafer, who was impressed with Baptista and began working with him on a business plan.

"I knew of him through people who were very involved in the wrestling community and so, in my estimation, if he put that kind of thought and diligence and focus into growing poultry, I knew he would be a great partner," Kolterman said. "And the story was really inspiring. Anytime people are interested in going into farming, as a first-generation farmer, it's an exciting, great story."

Lincoln Premium Poultry has about 80 farmers in Nebraska and a few in Iowa who now grow birds processed in Fremont, mainly grown to become Costco rotisserie chickens. Kolterman said most of the operators are younger, under age 30. For many, raising birds was the one way they could return to the family farm operation, Kolterman said.

It was nearly a three-year endeavor for Baptista, from the time he made that phone call to getting chicks delivered into the barns, while he remained in college. "He found a way to make it work, and I think that's an inspiring story for other Nebraska kids looking for a pathway into farming, but I don't think it's for the faint of heart," Kolterman said. "He brought that determination and focus that he brought into wrestling, and now he's turned that determination towards this new endeavor."

LEARNING EARLY

Baptista jumped from playing with tractors in the living room to working for a farmer throughout high school. Baptista hauls grain and is a part-time farm hand for Bob Rohrig, a farmer near Friend. Baptista credited Rohrig with showing him the work it takes to run a successful farm.

Rohrig described Baptista as "part of the family." Baptista would ride the school bus home with one of Rohrig's daughters and would spend his time on Rohrig's farm. Eventually, Rohrig hired him. "He's one of those kids that have got both feet on the ground, and he's going to be successful at whatever -- a great kid," Rohrig said. "His time management is awesome for that age group."

Rohrig added, "He's the type of guy that once you explain something to him, once he gets the experience of doing it or being around it, then it's just easy."

Despite his success as a wrestler over the past eight years, Baptista made the comment he was looking forward to harvest because, for once, wrestling practice wasn't going to get in the way of him working longer hours.

At age 18, Baptista got his Commercial Driver's License (CDL) and has spent time hauling grain for Rohrig. Baptista said he thinks buying a couple of grain-hauling trucks might be one of his next ventures as a way to keep diversifying his farm.

"I'm trying to spread out and try some different things to be as diverse as I can be," he said.

FEW BLACK FARMERS IN NEBRASKA

Zemua's early success starting a poultry operation goes against some of the national and state trends for both youth and minority farmers. Out of 77,097 primary producers in Nebraska for the 2017 Ag Census, just 1,199 were listed under age 25.

Regarding race, the Ag Census reported only 22 Nebraska farmers were listed as Black or African American.

Nationally, Black farmers of any age made up 45,508 producers out of nearly 3.4 million total producers listed in the 2017 Ag Census. Black lawmakers, primarily in Southern states, have been pushing for more programs and aid for Black farmers, whose numbers were closer to 920,000 nationally a century ago. Congressmen from Georgia, Florida and North Carolina this past week wrote an op-ed calling for more access to credit and technical assistance for Black farmers.

While Baptista is starting off his farm in rural Nebraska, the emergence of new, young, Black farmers is taking shape in urban areas such as Detroit or Atlanta, said Veronica Womack, a political science and public administration professor at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia, and executive director of the newly-founded Rural Studies Institute there.

"There is a movement of urban agriculture that has really taken shape in cities where there is a connection between consciousness, healthy living, healthy food and economic independence," she said. "This is really growing for Black farmers in urban areas, but I'm not necessarily seeing that in rural areas."

GENERATION Z FARMERS

Typically, one of the biggest challenges facing aspiring young farmers is the inability to "navigate the system" of USDA programs and lending institutions, Womack said. While needing mentors to help lend support, Womack credited Zemua's age group, Generation Z, for showing they are socialized to be independent and not willing to accept the Old World Order.

"With this young man being a first-generation farmer, not just because it was passed down to him, but this is something that he wanted to do and was determined to do it, and went out, got the information that he needed, that's Gen Z," Womack said. "They have a vision and they are going to carry out that vision. So, I firmly believe this is the generation that is going to assist us with some of the transitions we've been struggling with."

Womack said changing perceptions about agriculture within youth in rural towns in the "Black Belt" of the South is one of the areas she wants to spotlight in the Rural Studies Institute in a research project with USDA. "There are a lot of young people out there whose parents may not have been in farming, who are in rural areas, but because there's such a generational divide, in my perspective, in the African American community, around agriculture," Womack said. "There has to be a rebranding or whatever because agriculture is a lot different now than the legacy stories that we have been taught in the rural South that agriculture is something you definitely didn't want to get into. That's an image that we have to overcome if we're going to attract young people. They need to see other young people in agriculture, and they also need to understand how it works."

The lack of minority engagement and diversity in agriculture is starting to be recognized in different ways. Just Thursday, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture signed an agreement with the National Society for Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences to create a partnership to provide minority college students more exposure to jobs in agricultural policy and state departments of agriculture.

LEARNING TO OWN

Driving a Gator around Baptista Farms LLC, Baptista showed some of the details of his eight barns that can collectively hold about 360,000 broiler chickens. He explained most of the manure is spread on neighboring cornfields. His barns have the potential to help fertilizer as many as 2,500 acres. Some of the manure, though, is left in the barns as insulation, he added. He noted the giant propane tank and a lesson quickly learned last winter.

"Propane is really our biggest cost as far as winter goes, and starting out in the winter was quite a challenge for us as well," he said. Baptista added, "We have gotten a lot of mechanical things with the barns that haven't gone our way."

Rohrig said that last fall and winter tested Baptista as he was working on the construction of the poultry barns, helping with harvest, taking college classes and wrestling on top of that. Baptista was then told that his first pullets of chicks would arrive right before Christmas. "It was kind of shell shock for him," Rohrig said. "So, I went up there and we went to work to help get bedding in, and it was amazing how much stuff he got done. I would imagine he had very little sleep because it all just kind of fell on him at once."

Through mid-August, Baptista's farm has already delivered five flocks for processing, or roughly 1.8 million birds.

Baptista said the hardest part of working to build chicken barns was the financing, though he brought his dad on as a partner there. Baptista said he leaned heavily on USDA Farm Service Agency programs, including beginning farmer loans and guarantees. He praised the help he got in Nebraska with those loan programs.

"They were pretty impressed that I had my ducks in a row," he said. "Being young, being a minority, I just want to make sure I didn't give anyone any reason to reject my application. I think for anyone who is young in age, it's one of the best ways to get started and get the cash flow you need to make it work. I couldn't have done it without FSA."

Baptista credits advice from his father, who tells him to take things slow. But his father also said to ensure he's always prepared and has done his homework. "He said, 'Don't give them a reason to judge you.' I couldn't have gotten any of these loans or financing without his help, so he's a big part of this."

Besides getting funding for the eight barns, Baptista also had enough money left over to buy 25 bred cows and begin a cow-calf operation. He keeps thinking about further diversification, such as buying cropland. "There are a lot of things that just happened to work out in favor for me that I'm pretty grateful for," he said.

As a young Black man, Baptista isn't immune to the struggles of minorities and racial tensions across the country right now. He acknowledged he has been afforded an early opportunity to become a farmer that is significantly harder for people both his age and race.

"I still see it when I tell people I'm a farmer and they kind of look at me," he said. "For me, to give a face to a minority farmer is a good thing.

Yet, at the ripe age of 22, Baptista also clearly enjoys the responsibilities that come from running a farm.

"Farming is a way of life and I really love it," he said. "The biggest difference for someone like myself is I've gone from working day-to-day to making the decisions on my own. I'm responsible for everything that happens."

Follow Zemua Baptista on Twitter @ExcuseZemua

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN