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Learning from Socially Disadvantaged Farmers in California

December 9th, 2020

Coming from  a   small  farming community  in  Mexico, agriculture has always been embedded in the spirit of my existence.  Once  immigrated to  California  at a young age ,  that part of me was put on hold .   I t was not until  traveling  for  some memorable years throughout South America that I returned home to reconnect with  the land  in Oaxaca.  

corn harvest
Carmen’s family farm in Oaxaca during a heritage corn harvest.

I found myself working on my family’s small farm , combining traditional farming methods with agroecology  principles ,   which I  saw being applied with great success in  places like  Brazil  and  Colombia .   I was inspired by the work of  a gronomist and  a ctivist  Sebastiao Pinheiro and his amazing journey through Latin America with the Biopoder   Camponês .  

This  movement seeks to develop  farmers ’ capacities as  creators of synergies in  food production . It is  based on social justice, equity ,  and agroecology principles  in  policy, education ,  and field practices After I moved from Mexico to San Diego County , I  recalled  the  fascination  that I always had  with the never-ending fields I saw  growing up in San Diego County  or driving through the Central Valley  to visit family in Madera . I did not  realize that  next to the se  larger farm operations  were a  significant number of smaller farm operations  that were  facing many of the challenges that  I was used  to in Mexico.  

When I started working at American Farmland Trust, I felt fortunate to have the chance to be involved in agriculture from an organizational angle.

A s the California Farms for a New Generation  P rogram  M anager , one initiative I lead  is the Underserved Farmer Outreach Program , or   UFOP .   This program  works  to bring  technical assistance , resources,  and outreach to socially disadvantaged  farmers from underrepresented communities .  

Before  the  C OVID -19  pandemic,  UFO P was organizing workshops across California .   We were  connecting farmers with regional and local technicians and service providers,  while  learning more  about their challenges and  finding  ways to improve their farming operations.   positioned  myself to be  a listener and partner , with an understanding of  the systemic inequalities that have historically prevented socially disadvantaged farmers from fully developing their capacities .   I also  act ed  as a  liaison  between the technician and the farmer.  

farmer workshop In this process, it was important to address immediate hurdles  like   language and cultural barriers , which  are often over looked  and difficult to overcome.  M y work  focused on  the small, family farms growing specialty crops, operated by immigrant farmers O ften,   they are  first-generation with Spanish as their second language, as many come from  I ndigenous communities and speak their  mother tongue . This short, but meaningful encounter with these farmers made me  aware of   the importance of getting to know these growers, their origin s ,  and  their  individual farming situation s.   N field  work would be possible without emphasizing interculturality as a clear objective of our work .  

I also realized the  need to  develop  a learning exchange  model  based on dialogue and intercultural education as an alternative to the top down approach   we  often  experience; where  we see the farmer as the  student ”  and the technicians and  organizational   staff as   experts.  

In a system heavily focused on farm practices and working the soil,  we must   shift the focus back to  farmers  and their labor ,   especially  women and I ndigenous   farmers ,  acknowledg e  their power and potential ,  and provide the tools that will lead towards a more inclusive model f or   all g roups involved.  

There is  also  a need for  establish ing  a horizontal, community based approach to allow farmers to interact  and learn from  each other, through a model  like  the  campesino a campesino  movement , or MCAC, which agroecologist  Eric Holt-Giménez  intensively researched in Mexico.  Under  this model, I  imagine  staff from organizations like AFT  accompanying  farmers in their operations and   leveraging  connections and resources to develop a support system, perhaps through local or regional  encuentro  de  agricultores  or farmer gatherings. At these events, farmers could  network and talk about challenges, solutions to operational issues,  and  market access programs and learn from each other’s experiences. 

Latino Farmer Geography aside , socially disadvantaged farmers are no different than those in my hometown . They share  the same values and passion for what they  do but   lack  the network of support that we rely on back  in  Mexico, because  much of our  effort  depends on communal work.  

In terms of skills and capacity, immigrant farmers are already trained in agricultural practices and bring an intrinsic knowledge from generations of farming tradition. Taking up agriculture in California feels like a natural step  to these farmers , even if it means renting land and assuming the challenges the system has constructed. 

Data from  the 2017 U . S .  Census of Agriculture  shows  the  average age of farmers  in California is 58 years old. In contrast, the average age of a  farmer in Mexico  is 42 years old,  because  farmers  traditionally  start at a young age ,   and  their livelihood s  depend  on family agriculture.

I see great potential for  these  highly skilled and knowledgeable  growers to have an  opportunity to continue their farming culture  and  share their  skills and   saberes   as  great stewards of the land   and nurturers of its biodiversity.  

women and black farmers We must also recognize  that  the needs of immigrant farmers and farmers of color are a lot different than what larger ,  more established farmers face , and these needs are not just  for  technical assistance They also need help  compl ying  with regulatory programs such as the Food Safety Management Act ,   Good Agricultural Practices ,  and National Organic Program  certification ,   as well as  ac cess to technology, business development, and market s . Another pressing challenge is access to land, which  can prevent access to  some of USDA’s programs and the development of comprehensive conservation plans,  which limits  the  farmers’  work to crop production.  I hope through th e adaptation of AFT ’s  Land Access Training   curriculum, F arms for a  N ew  G eneration California  can begin to explore the barriers to land access, in collaboration with partners, local organizations ,  and agencies already doing important on the ground work .  

Since  the  beginning of the  C OVID -19 pandemic AFT’s  Farms for a New Generation’s UFOP  program  has  shifted from in person workshops ,  such as the inaugural event at  ALBA   in Salinas, C alifornia,  to alternative strategies to  continue   supporting  underrepresented and beginning farmers  including:  

  • T wo Spanish language manuals  on irrigation systems for specialty crops and regenerative agriculture   principles and practices for  soil  health  and crop management systems.   These were created using simple Spanish language terminology.  
  • P artnership in the San Joaquin Valley  with El  Gallito  93.7 FM  to  create  two, 30-minute programs in Spanish  focusing on  e fficient  i rrigation and  n utrient  m anagement  p ractices , or   EINMP , including  interviews with field technicians.  The radio programs  featur ed conversations with two  Central Coast  farmers , who discussed their challenges, technical needs, and farm operations ,  providing  an important platform  to amplify the voice of  these  growers. Listen here and here .
  • A new  CA FNG   portal  within AFT’s website  that  integrates all these  new  tools and includes components such as the L and Access Training  Curriculum.  

There is much work ahead to advance the work, needs, challenges ,  and inequities of  socially disadvantaged  farmers. I welcome AFT’s process of understanding the  nation’s  demographics of farmers is rapidly changing . A dapting the information, resources, and programs to meet the needs of these new farmers is a step towards building bridges.    

A cknowledging  agriculture’s  historic  inequities that exist due to systemic barriers   is only the  beginning of our transformation , and  I feel  grateful   to be a part of  this change  at AFT .

By recognizing that farmers are not monolithic, we can work effectively towards bringing  equity,  justice ,  and understand ing  to the  diverse  farmers and farm workers that nurture the land that sustains us.  


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