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Extension Evolves: Outreach to Latino farmers in western Washington

Posted by Louisa Winkler | December 14, 2015

This year CSANR sponsored registration for several WSU students to attend Tilth Producers of WA annual conference.  We will be posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.

Louisa Winkler, student guest-blogger.  Winkler is a PhD student in plant breeding.  She is developing oat varieties and end-user applications for western WA.
Louisa Winkler, student guest-blogger. Winkler is a PhD student in plant breeding. She is developing oat varieties and end-user applications for western WA.

Latino farm workers in western Washington

In western Washington’s Skagit County, many of the people working on farms have immigrated from Latin American countries, primarily Mexico, in the last one or two generations.  In 2014, Skagit County’s population was 17.8% Hispanic or Latino (U.S. Census Bureau).  Indeed, the agricultural sector’s reliance on immigrant labor from Central and South America is nationwide; the most recent data from the National Agricultural Workers Survey reports that 74% of farm workers named Mexico as their country of birth (data available at https://naws.jbsinternational.com/3/3.php).

In a workshop at the 2015 Tilth Producers Conference entitled “Challenges and Opportunities in Growing New Farm Businesses: Veterans and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers”, presenters Kate Selting-Smith and her husband Rob Smith pointed out that Latino farmers often come from an agrarian tradition with a strong work ethic and a high level of practical expertise in farm production.  They may also be accustomed to a low-input approach to farming which was associated with resource constraints in their home country but which has the advantage of preparing them to be successful as certified organic producers here in the U.S. Given their numbers and the skills existing within their communities, Latino immigrants have a lot to offer to agriculture and food production in the U.S.

Yet U.S. Extension Services have faced challenges reaching this group.  Extension resources are predominantly English-language; they are often in written form; and they are increasingly delivered online and through email networks.  In the Latino community, said Kate and Rob, not everyone is fluent in English, literate, a computer owner or email user.   This means that conventional communication channels such as email list-serves and announcements posted on websites are often ineffective for reaching Latino farmers.

Reaching farmers is already a tough job for Extension.  Farmers are generally extremely busy and don’t necessarily know what the Extension Service has to offer or how to engage with it.

I spent the first 2.5 years of my PhD working in the WSU Extension network (at the Northwest Washington Research & Extension Center in Mount Vernon), and saw first-hand how challenging it can be for farmer and researcher to connect in a constructive way.  Faculty members not only want to make their research outputs accessible to farmers, but they want farmers’ feedback to help shape research in a way that makes it relevant to current needs.

The inherent challenge of Extension

Traditionally, Extension outreach methods were based on the diffusion model.  The idea was that outreach agents should target a small group of early-adopter ‘innovator farmers’ and that knowledge and techniques would diffuse from this group via peer-to-peer communication to the rest of the farming community.  The diffusion model was based on the experience of hybrid corn seed’s popularization amongst Iowa farmers in the 1930s.  Arguably, this case was rather specific; and by the early 20th century, the model was showing its limitations, leading to accusations that Extension was favoring a small elite of wealthier and more educated farmers (Stephenson, G. 2003.  The somewhat flawed theoretical foundation of the extension services.  Journal of Extension 41 (4).  Available online at http://www.joe.org/joe/2003august/a1.php.).

Limitations of the diffusion model are particularly well-illustrated by the example of Latino farmers.  While few would deny the importance and influence of peer-to-peer sharing, such sharing can be disrupted by any sort of segregation within communities – ideological, social or linguistic.  In the case of Latino farmers, differences of experience, education and language all contribute to the potential for segregation from other parts of the farming community.

It is encouraging to see that today, Extension is evolving beyond the diffusion model and taking action to target specific subgroups in the farming community, including Latinos.  Kate Selting-Smith’s role in Skagit County represents just such an effort.  Kate was hired by WSU Extension onto the Small Farms Team.  Fluent in Spanish, she coordinates Spanish-language educational programs for Latino farmers, helps them navigate the paperwork for certifications such as GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) or organic, and guides them through grant applications; she also makes English-language Extension programming accessible to Latino participants by providing simultaneous translation.  Prior to her arrival in 2014, the WSU Small Farms Program had started offering Spanish-language programs in 2004, through its Immigrant Farmer Education program.

Wider prospects

Winkler VivaMeanwhile, in a parallel program outside WSU Extension, Rob Smith is Operations and Incubation Director at Viva Farms, a non-profit farm incubator which leases farm plots and shared equipment to people and allows them to build up production experience and marketing channels so as to eventually launch an independent farming operation.  Many of Viva’s participants are Latino farmers who were previously farm workers.  Viva Farms and WSU Skagit County Extension collaborate to reach this community.

Much of the work being done by Kate and Rob will enable Latino farmers to run their own farm business rather than being limited to seasonal work as employees. Another problem which farm workers face is the highly seasonal nature of many agricultural jobs in western Washington (e.g. berry picking).  Running their own farm can help establish a more stable income stream.

Kate and Rob’s work in Skagit County is not the only great example of outreach to Latinos in the U.S. agricultural sector.  As of 1990, Section 2501 in the Farm Bill provides for dissemination of grant funding in direct support of “socially disadvantaged” farmers, i.e. ethnic minorities and returning military veterans.  There is federal and state assistance specifically targeted at Hispanic farmers, and organizations are taking on the work of connecting farmers with those resources.  The Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska has a Latino farmer outreach program, alongside programs for veteran and women farmers; so do the University of Missouri and many others.  The USDA and other governmental agencies now provide Spanish-language online services.

Closing the circle

Ray de Vries delivering his capnote presentation. Photo: Tilth Producers of WA
Ray de Vries delivering his capnote presentation. Photo: Tilth Producers of WA

The capnote speech at Tilth 2015 was given by Ray de Vries, owner of Ralph’s Greenhouse in Skagit County and a long-standing member of the organic community.  Ray spoke about his family’s origins in Friesland (the Netherlands) and their adventurous move to America to start a new life in the mid-twentieth century.  I was struck by the parallels between the traditional Dutch farming community Ray described and the Latino farming community in present-day Skagit County.  Both rely on word of mouth and peer-to-peer information sharing.  Church is, for both, an important networking hub and social scene.  And Dutch immigrants in the US faced a language barrier just as Mexicans may do today.

Since becoming established in the U.S., Ray and his family have contributed so much to the community, not only through the production of organic vegetables with responsible farming practices but also by providing a supportive working environment for their staff members.  They have striven to develop models enabling them to offer year-round employment, a precious resource in an agricultural economy dominated by seasonality and, in my view, a key to sustainability of farm business models.  Ray and his wife Becky won the Farmer of the Year award at Tilth 2014.

It is exciting to imagine the benefits that could arise out of integration of future waves of immigrants into the US agricultural community.

One thought on "Extension Evolves: Outreach to Latino farmers in western Washington"

  1. Bertie Weddell says:

    Louisa,

    Thank you for this excellent blog about a very important topic.

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