Regenerative Agriculture for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers
Introduction: Background and Needs
According to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, “Underserved communities of agricultural producers have not received the amount of specialized technical support [from the U.S. agricultural system] that would benefit the launch, growth, resilience and success of their agricultural enterprises”(NIFA, 2022:6). Socially disadvantaged beginning farmers in California often lack the resources, expertise, financial and logistical knowledge to take advantage of such assistance as is available (NIFA, 2022:6; Calo, 2018). They may not speak or read English and face informational and logistical challenges in accessing state and federal agricultural programs, especially in terms of paperwork and bureaucratic requirements. Latinx operators of small farms (less than 50 acres) are especially at a disadvantage in the U.S. agricultural system.
Latinx owned-and operated small farms operate face serious economic and social challenges to survival and success, especially where management and operating skills are concerned. The majority of Latinx farmers rent and farm small tracts of land, have very limited access to capital and experience significant language, bureaucratic and infrastructure barriers to success in the U.S. agricultural system (Ostrom, Cha & Flores, 2010). Many beginning Latinx farmers operate in a sociocultural that differs from that of their Anglo counterparts. Latinx farmers operate in a trust-based milieu rather than a purely competitive one. They may have experienced trauma during migration to and while living in the United States. They must navigate both the local social networks of extended families and neighbors and the remote bureaucratic market system of the U.S. agricultural system (Garcia-Pabón & Ostrom, 2015). Few own their land or possess the capital needed to purchase equipment and technology that could improve productivity. Many are ineligible for crop loans from commercial lenders, due to documentation issues and limited farming experience. They rely heavily on family and friends for monetary assistance and labor. They are often poorly informed about seasonal market conditions and distribution options and may lack the management and accounting skills required to keep a business afloat. Much of these farmers’ practical knowledge comes from historical praxis in specific environments, passed from peer to peer and generation to generation (Mayo, 2020).
None of these challenges are new; many were enumerated in a 2007 report by the University of Florida’s Hispanic-Latino Farmers and Ranchers Project (Swisher, Brennan & Shah, 2007) and another report in 2011 by the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska (Starkweather, et al, 2011) and research from University of Washington Extension (Garcia-Pabón & Ostrom, 2015).
In California, the number of beginning Latinx farmers is growing, driven by farmworkers in transition from laborer to producer. Latinx farmers comprise the largest group of socially disadvantaged farmers, but their numbers are small compared to white farmers.
The table below presents data about farms sizes and incomes for the three Monterey Bay counties and some information about Latinx farmers. According to the USDA (2017), there are 756 Latinx farmers in the three counties (18.6% of the 4,067 total). If we optimistically assume those 756 Latinx-operated farms average sales of $50,000 annually (probably too high an estimate), total revenues are $38 million per year, compared to the three-county total of $4.9 billion. How many of these are beginning Latinx farmers is not available from the data.
Small farmers also face additional challenges from climate change. The impacts of climate change on American agriculture are expected to be extremely serious, especially in California (Fernandez-Bou, et al, 2021). Climate change will increase obstacles to success, in particular, for small farms (less than 50 acres), which will have fewer options to respond and adapt (Roesch-McNally, Garrett & Fery, 2020). Climate change will affect temperatures in the field, soil quality, water supplies, and the productivity and mix of crops that can be raised under more adverse conditions.
A recent report on agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley sees California agriculture as offering a “unique opportunity for climate change adaptation and mitigation innovation by adopting new tools, using data technology, promoting renewable energy, and making land and water planning more robust (Fernandez-Bou, op. cit., p 15).” According to the report, “Small farmers, including disadvantaged and minority farmers, are among the most impacted by climate extremes in part because of their limited resources to build the needed resilience” (id., p. 7).
The Sustainable Systems Research Foundation, in partnership with Whiskey Hill Farms, Hartnell College and the Community Alliance for Family Farmers are offering a series of bilingual workshops for Latinx operators of small farms in the Monterey Bay Region, beginning in 2021-22 and continuing through 2024. The workshops focus on regenerative agriculture and closed loop farm economies and address technical assistance needs, tools and opportunities that support farm productivity, operations and management. In the workshops, farmers learn about new, higher-value crops, closed loop regenerative technologies, techniques and practices to their specific conditions, and the managerial and operational requirements for successful farming. They learn about opportunities for state and federal support. And they work on experimental plots in greenhouses to apply what they have learned.
This program supports our collaboration’s longer-term goal of creation of a technical assistance program for Latinx operators of small farms that will complement existing agricultural education in regional high schools, community colleges and agricultural field schools and extension and non-profit outreach to these operators and their families. The program helps to socialize farmers into the U.S. agricultural system so they can take advantage of the many resources and forms of support available to American farmers.
The workshops are adapted to the specific needs and learning styles of Latinx farmers. We engage directly with the farmers in the cultural and social milieus in which they work and live. We treat their identified needs as central to the project and treat farmers’ situations, experiences and knowledge as critical to content and complementary to top-down research and instruction. Both instruction and materials are provided in Spanish and English, with live, bidirectional interpretation, in a more informal discussion setting rather than a conventional classroom approach, and easily accessible and cognizant of the learning styles and experience of disadvantaged beginning farmers. Workshop discussions are led by Spanish speakers and respond to farmers’ questions and concerns. Participants are offered numerous opportunities to engage in hands-on application of technologies and techniques on small research plots and on their farms. Each workshop includes a debriefing to identify changes that need to be made in subsequent workshops. Finally, participants are compensated for lost work time.
Through discussions with workshop participants during 2021-22, post-workshop surveys, and need assessment interviews with farmers, we found that beginning Latinx farmers seek:
- Viable business models, including operational financing, local supply chain structures and emerging opportunities, storage and sharing of planning, costs and equipment, and revenue resilience.
- New urban market opportunities via wholesale, retail and direct access to consumers, farmers’ markets, restaurants and CSAs, branding of farms and productions, and leveraging language and culture as fundamental assets in networking and marketing.
- Methods for assessing relationships among labor, technology, land, and infrastructure in terms of cost management, crop selection, farming methods, storage and processing, local distribution, and customer demand.
- Knowledge, skills, tools and techniques for resilience in response to changes in land availability, access costs, product demand, and disruptive challenges (such as climate change), environmental sustainability, management critical resources, such as soil, carbon and water, and risks and challenges of new regulations and food safety issues.
- Information about costs and benefits of specific technologies, techniques and practices for improved management of land and production, increased efficiency and yield, and communication and information exchange.
References cited on this page
Calo, Adam, 2018. “How knowledge deficit interventions fail to resolve beginning farmer challenges,” Agriculture and Human Values 35: 367-81, DOI 10.1007/s10460-017-9832-6.
CDFA (California Department of Food & Agriculture. 2020. “Equity: 2020 Report to the California Legislature on the Farmer Equity Act,” Sacramento, CA, https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/farmerresources/pdfs/2020FarmerEquityReport.pdf.
Fernandez-Bou, Angel Santiago, et al., 2021. “Regional Report for the San Joaquin Valley Region on Impacts of Climate Change.” California Natural Resources Agency. Publication number: SUM-CCCA4-2021-003, at: https://www.energy.ca.gov/sites/default/files/2022-01/CA4_CCA_SJ_Region_Eng_ada.pdf.
Garcia-Pabón, José & Marcia Ostrom, 2015. “Communicating with Latino Farmers: Cultural Aspects and Strategies,” Washington State University Extension, FS191E.
NIFA (National Institute of Food & Agriculture), 2022. “Request for Applications: American Rescue Plan Technical Assistance Investment Program,” Washington, DC: USDA, USDA-NIFA-OP-009004.
Ostrom, Marcia, Bee Cha & Malaquias Flores. 2010. “Creating access to land grant resources for multicultural and disadvantaged farmers,” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 1, #1 (August): 89-106.
Roesch-McNally G, Garrett A, Fery M. 2020. “Assessing perceptions of climate risk and adaptation among small farmers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley,” Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 35, 626–630, at: https://doi.org/10.1017/S1742170519000267.
Starkweather, K., et al, 2011. “Improving the Use of USDA Programs Among Hispanic and Latino Farmers and Ranchers,” Lyons, Nebraska and Columbia, Missouri: Center for Rural Affairs & Cambio Center, at: https://www.nifa.usda.gov/sites/default/files/asset/document/hispanic_full_report.pdf.
Swisher, M.E., Mark Brennan & Mital Shah, 2007. “Hispanic-Latino Farmers and Ranchers Project,” Final Report submitted by University of Florida Center for Organic Agriculture to Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Services (CSREES) /Economic and Community Systems (ECS) and Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE), Sept. 2006-September 2007, at: https://nifa.usda.gov/sites/default/files/asset/document/hispanic_full_report.pdf.
USDA. 2019. “2017 Census of Agriculture—United States Summary and State Data,” Washington, DC, Volume 1, Part 51, AC-17-A-51.