Armando Arellano had never heard of a blueberry when he jumped into the trunk of a car 21 years ago and was crammed between two strangers for a successful -- and illegal -- drive across the border from Mexico into the United States.

Nor did he give blueberries much thought during the next two decades, whipping up cakes, pies and an occasional blueberry muffin as a baker in California and, more recently, in Elk Grove Village, Ill.

But on a recent afternoon, standing amid cartons of blueberries, pinatas and Mexican candies in the newly refurbished Arellanos Fresh Fruit Market, Arellano credited blueberries for making possible an unexpected and happy twist in his life.

In southwest Michigan, where Mexicans were long relegated to migrant work, Arellano is among a growing number of Mexican immigrants who are buying the blueberry farms that thrive in the region.

As with Arellano, many of the Mexican farmers spent years working blue-collar jobs in the Chicago area before moving to southwest Michigan, jumping at the chance to return to a more rural lifestyle.

"I made a big change from a baker to a farmer," said Arellano, 36, who was planning to open a bakery in Michigan when he stumbled upon the blueberry farm and fruit stand. "When I saw [the blueberries], and I saw that they were making money from them, I had to go for it."

It's a trend that's not confined to Michigan blueberry farms.

In its most recent Census of Agriculture, for 2002, the Agriculture Department reported a surge in the number of minority farmers in the United States, particularly among Hispanics. The agricultural census is taken every five years.

The number of Hispanics who are principal operators of their farms increased by 51 percent from 1997 to 2002, from 33,450 to 50,592, the census found. A principal operator, as defined by the USDA, is the person at the farm responsible for day-to-day operations.

There was also a 20 percent increase in the number of American Indian/Alaska Natives who are principal operators of farms, to 15,494, and a 9 percent increase in the number of African American farmers, to 29,090. The number of Asian/Hawaiian farmers declined 3 percent, to 9,358.

Although the number of minority-owned farms remains relatively small -- 97 percent of the principal operators of farms are white -- their increasing numbers represent a bright spot in what is mostly a gloomy picture of the American family farm.

Driven by new technology that makes farming more efficient and increased competition from global markets, American farms are getting bigger and more scarce. The remaining farmers, meanwhile, are getting older, with an average age of 55 in the 2002 Census.

But although market forces have put pressure on operators of small- and medium-size farm trying to compete with large-scale farms, they also have offered opportunities for farmers willing to find niche markets or accept wages that many white farmers no longer will.

"Two things are happening," said William Kandel, a sociologist for the USDA's Economic Research Service. "This industry is being dominated by large farms. And the other thing is, immigrants are moving into areas that native-born workers are leaving and consider unprofitable.

"In that case, farming may be the rural equivalent of driving a cab," Kandel said.

That dynamic is playing out in Washington state, where intense competition from China has squeezed longtime apple growers. Hispanic farmers are increasingly buying orchards near Yakima from white farmers who are retiring or getting out of the business.

"While it's not been a good thing for white farmers because they are not making the millions they used to, it's been a good thing for Latino farmers," said Luz Bazan Gutierrez, president of Rural Community Development Resources, a nonprofit agency in Yakima.

Other immigrant farmers have found niche markets by focusing on produce that caters to growing immigrant populations, said August "Gus" Schumacher, a consultant on immigrant and refugee farming for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and a former undersecretary at the USDA.

For instance, West African farmers are growing njamma-njamma, ancthea, huckleberry greens and other vegetables from their homeland in Maryland fields and selling them at farmers markets in Washington, he said. In central Massachusetts, Cambodian and Hmong farmers are growing native crops such as komatsuna, pea tendrils and daikon for Asian communities in Boston.

Though immigrants have traditionally gravitated toward cities to find work, many are now moving to the country, because they lived in rural areas before moving to the United States and because of job opportunities.

For instance, Hmong refugees from the hills along the Laotian-Vietnamese border are leaving manufacturing jobs in California and Minnesota and buying poultry farms in Arkansas and Missouri.

"The refugee farmers don't want to work in factories," Schumacher said. "They want to live like they did in Vietnam."

Enrique Figueroa, a former USDA official who now oversees Latino affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said it's natural for minorities to move into farming because the vast majority of farm laborers are minorities, particularly Hispanics.

"A lot of [farmers] in their sixties, they are retiring, and for a lot of them, their offspring are not interested in farming," he said. "So their workers, who have historically been Latino, are saying: 'Hey, I'll buy the farm,' or, 'Can you help me finance it?' "

Estimating the number of minority farmers is an inexact science because of language barriers and undocumented immigrants' fears of the government. The agricultural census was adjusted to account for undocumented immigrant farmers, but many believe the numbers are far higher.

Juan Marinez, who tracks Hispanic farming for Michigan State University's Agricultural Extension Service, estimated that the agricultural census undercounted Hispanic farmers in southwest Michigan by 25 to 50 percent. As evidence, he noted that in a day of talking informally to Mexican farmers, only one of them filled out the census form.

The 2002 Census reports 828 Hispanics who are the principal owners of farms in Michigan, up from 315 in 1997.

In the sleepy town of Covert, just a few miles from tourist spots along Lake Michigan, the number of Mexicans looking for farmland has grown so much that land prices have soared to $5,000 an acre.

Evidence of the changing demographic is everywhere, from Alma Medrano's Cake-N-Bake bakery that specializes in Mexican pastries to Leopoldo Alcarez's grocery and taqueria, where a bus stops four times a week on its way from Detroit to Chicago and then on to Mexico.

A former factory worker in Elk Grove Village, Alcarez is one of nine brothers and three sisters who have settled in southwestern Michigan. Three of them are farmers. His older brother, Lupe, bought 20 acres three years agoand is growing tomatillos, peppers and blueberries.

Lupe Alcarez, 47, said he had a much larger farm in Michoacan before moving to Chicago and has always wanted to go back to farming.

"In Mexico, everything is human-powered," he said, wearing a "God Bless America" cap. "When you come here, you feel like the yoke has been taken off. You can do so much with tractors.

"I'm starting to find that I really love blueberries," Alcarez said, between shoving handfuls into his mouth. Even so, Alcarez is stumped when asked to translate "blueberry" into Spanish.

So, too, is Arellano, who stumbles around for the right word before finally giving up.

"It's, like, how can you call them? We call them berries," he said. "I don't know. I need to check the dictionary."

Arandano is Spanish for blueberry, according to some dictionaries.

Arellano said his blueberry farm has given him the chance to raise his two children in the country, which he prefers, and a place for his beloved horses to roam. He purchased his 60-acre farm last year from Covert's longtime mayor for about $300,000 with the help of a low-interest loan from the USDA.

"In Chicago, a house with a basement and a small yard is $320,000," Arellano said, as he loaded blueberries and other produce into the back of his truck for a twice-weekly trip to Chicago's Mexican markets. "It's my first year, and I don't think I did too bad at all. . . . It's not easy, but here we are. We're not leaving."

"I made a big change from a baker to a farmer," says Armando Arellano, a Mexican American who owns a farm and a fruit stand in southwest Michigan. The work is "not easy," he says, "but here we are."Leopoldo Alcarez in his Covert, Mich., grocery, where a bus stops four times a week on its way from Detroit to Chicago and then on to Mexico.Lupe Alcarez picks blueberries on a farm owned by a Mexican American friend. The number of Hispanics who are principal operators of farms increased by 51 percent from 1997 to 2002