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Walking the Walk, Talking the Talk

A visit with José Garcia, Extension Assistant Professor

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: sustainable agriculture extension outreach agriculture farming
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José Garcia puts on and takes off many hats during the average week, owing to the extension, teaching, and research dimensions of his work as Extension Assistant Professor in Rural Sociology. For instance, as Coordinator of the Community Food Systems and Sustainable Agriculture Program at MU (CFSSA), Garcia spends most of his time doing outreach with rural communities throughout the state.

A common misunderstanding some people have about the term “sustainable agriculture” is that it rejects technology, harkening back to an earlier time when people worked mainly with their hands. Quite the contrary, Garcia clarifies: sustainable agriculture uses the most recent technology in its approach to farming (and to food itself), in which economic viability and environmental impact, along with social responsibility, are at the center of every decision. In relation to this last dimension, approaches to sustainable agriculture ask such questions as the following: “How socially responsible are farmers? What is the impact of their operations on communities, families, and workers? And how connected to the community are they? ” Garcia explains the complexity of the situation: “All of those kinds of things need to be taken into consideration when making decisions because food and agriculture are totally connected to people, to communities, and to laborers.” Thus Garcia provides information and training to people about various aspects of agriculture – whether that involves farms, factories, schools, or other community organizations. He hopes to see a ripple effect, with the information he gives to various community educators in Missouri being spread throughout the state.

Trying to bring the connection between labor and sustainable agriculture to the forefront, Garcia also works with different kinds of business owners, particularly small- and medium-sized farm owners using agricultural workers, as well as agricultural workers themselves, who are interested in labor and sustainable farming practices. Much of his work focuses especially on ethnic minority groups (in Missouri, mainly people of Latin-American, Hmong, or African-American descent). Challenges arise, for example, when working with Latino farmers or agricultural workers. For starters, “anything that comes from some kind of institution is seen with some reservation,” largely because “their past experiences with authority and the government may be negative.” Other issues faced by these groups may involve immigration, education, poverty, health, and vulnerability to abuse by employers. With an estimated 3-5 million migrant and seasonal farm workers in the U.S., there are often familial considerations; many of the migrant farm workers are young males who have left behind wives and children in Guatemala, Mexico, or other Central American countries.

Moreover, “information related to Latino farmers is scarce and scattered,” Garcia explains. And extension educators and organization and agency professionals “have little or no training opportunities in reaching out and working with Latino farmers. These shortfalls of information, awareness, knowledge, and skills, as well as language and cultural differences, represent barriers between Latino farmers and the services available to them.” Garcia’s goal, therefore, is “first, to compile existing information about the demographics, language, and farming operations of Latino farmers in the country and the state; second, to raise awareness about sustainable agriculture resources in English and Spanish…among media and educators in rural areas; and lastly, to provide recommendations…to better reach out to Latino farmers by using media outlets, extension, and agency educators.”

Because this is a large task, Garcia relies upon collaboration with local organizations as well as federal agencies serving small and minority farmers as well as migrant farm workers. For instance, Garcia serves on the steering committee for the National Immigrant Farming Initiative, a network of organizations across the country working with immigrant and refugee farmers, with the hope of sharing information, support, and interpretation in order to try to find better ways of assisting these farmers. In fact, a large part of Garcia’s contribution involves bridging existing services, facilitating partnerships, and making connections. “Success relies heavily on those collaborations,” he insists. “It has to be collaborative. I’d kill myself if I tried to do everything on my own.”

In order to reach the greatest number of individual farm owners and workers, Garcia trains extension educators throughout the state, who then work directly with the farmers and workers in their various regions. He recently was a member of a team that hosted a two-day training event for extension educators on sustainable hog production. He also offered a series of workshops for minority farmers on issues related to sustainable agriculture in an attempt to expose these producers to sustainable agriculture practices, natural resources, conservation issues, and funding opportunities for their own projects.

Garcia has found that many employers are concerned about hiring migrant workers illegally and don’t know where to go for information. So he also provides employers with “human risk management” information, including paperwork requirements for employers hiring foreign workers, on topics such as ergonomics, pesticide safety, housing, communication, and health. In addition, Garcia coordinates and conducts a series of “cultural competency” workshops and institutes, giving extension educators and other professionals the tools “to know what to do when they are in front of a group of Latino farmers, what kind of things to pay attention to, what kind of communication levels to look for.” Part of the training is to get the participants to look at “what it took the Latino farmers to get to the point where they are.” When working with extension educators, Garcia tries to help them look reflexively at themselves: “That was a very interesting process, because you may have the best intention of working with an underserved population, but really don’t give yourself enough time to look at yourself.” Many of the workshop participants, for example, “didn’t think that they had a culture,” Garcia remarks. As white males, they saw themselves as just “normal and not connected to any culture.” Garcia reminds them that they too have a culture: “you need to understand your culture first in order to understand other cultures and communicate effectively in a cross-cultural setting,” he maintains. Ascertaining that Latino good, productive employees remain good productive employees if there is effective communication with their employers, something that benefits everybody.

Not surprisingly, Garcia’s research likewise concerns Latinos in agriculture, and considering the ever-increasing population of Latinos in Missouri’s labor work force and farming, it is easy to see how Garcia’s research and teaching naturally coalesce into his outreach in rural communities throughout the state. Through his work in the Sustainable Agriculture area, Garcia has been identifying issues relevant to minority agriculture operators. Garcia says that Latino farmers (and other minority farmers) need to be exposed to sustainable agriculture approaches as much as anyone else; so whenever possible, he makes available materials on sustainable agriculture in both Spanish and English.

In addition to this extensive work with agriculture employers, farmers, farm workers, and extension educators, Garcia teaches a class on sustainable agriculture as part of MU’s new undergraduate major in sustainable agriculture. He also coordinates a series of monthly on-campus seminars (free to students, staff, and faculty) entitled, “What’s New in Sustainable Food and Farming,” which cover a variety of topics, including water quality, ethanol and its environmental impact, intentional communities, grass-based dairying, crop diversification, organic livestock and crops, Agroforestry, and others. “You may think that the sustainable agriculture seminars or course draws only students from agriculture,” Garcia comments. But in fact, students from all walks of life--from nursing to philosophy--are showing interest: “Sustainable agriculture has a philosophical element. It’s not just an approach to farming, but to life as well.”

With all the many facets of Garcia’s work, he admits sometimes feeling stretched too thin: “I do these things not only because it’s part of my job responsibilities, but because I strongly believe in the things that I’m doing.” “To be honest,” he adds, “I don’t think industrial agriculture is that sustainable. That’s my personal opinion. I think we need to give a long-term perspective to the things we do, and sustainable agriculture has that long-term approach. It’s about future generations. It’s about actually leaving our kids and our kids’ children the same opportunities, the same natural resources, and the same access to services that we enjoy now.”