Learning from Socially Distanced Farmers in California
Coming from a small farming community in Mexico, agriculture has always been embedded in the spirit of my existence. Once I immigrated to California at a young age, that part of me was put on hold. It was not until traveling for some memorable years throughout South America that I returned home to reconnect with the land in Oaxaca.
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 agronomist and activist 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 these 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.
As the California Farms for a New Generation Program Manager, 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 COVID-19 pandemic, UFOP 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. I 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 acted as a liaison between the technician and the farmer.
In this process, it was important to address immediate hurdles like language and cultural barriers, which are often overlooked and difficult to overcome. My work focused on the small, family farms growing specialty crops, operated by immigrant farmers. Often, they are first-generation with Spanish as their second language, as many come from Indigenous 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 origins, and their individual farming situations. No 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 Indigenous farmers, acknowledge their power and potential, and provide the tools that will lead towards a more inclusive model for all groups involved.
There is also a need for establishing 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.
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 livelihoods 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.
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 complying with regulatory programs such as the Food Safety Management Act, Good Agricultural Practices, and National Organic Program certification, as well as access to technology, business development, and markets. 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 the adaptation of AFT’s Land Access Training curriculum, Farms for a New Generation 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 COVID-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, California, to alternative strategies to continue supporting underrepresented and beginning farmers including:
- Two 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.
- Partnership in the San Joaquin Valley with El Gallito 93.7 FM to create two, 30-minute programs in Spanish focusing on efficient irrigation and nutrient management practices, or EINMP, including interviews with field technicians. The radio programs featured 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 Land 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. Adapting the information, resources, and programs to meet the needs of these new farmers is a step towards building bridges.
Acknowledging 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 understanding to the diverse farmers and farm workers that nurture the land that sustains us.
Farms for a New Generation in California
Learn more about this program and get resources in Spanish and English.Farms for a New Generation in California