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Half of US farm workers are Hispanic, but few make it to leadership positions. Here’s how Future Farmers of America is changing that.

By Diana Prichard
 

Light horse judging competition at Cal-State Fresno, for the state Future Farmers of America finals and field day competitions

“There are two stories to agriculture,” said Luis Sanchez, “and I’ve seen both.”

Sanchez was born in Mexico in 1995. His mother raised him by herself for the first year of his life while his father established himself as a farm laborer in the United States. A year later, Sanchez and his mother obtained visas and joined his father in Gonzales, California, at the northern end of Monterey County. “We grow a lot of vegetables here,” said Sanchez of the area around his California hometown. “A lot of lettuce.”

Soon after reuniting, Sanchez’s mother took a job in the fields alongside his father to help support their young family. “They worked long hours,” recalled Sanchez. “I remember how exhausted they were. When they got home they just wanted to eat and sleep.”

Half of all farm laborers and supervisors in the United States are Hispanic, according to the USDA Economic Research Service. The proportion of Hispanic laborers is even higher in California. On farms like the lettuce operations in Monterey County, an estimated 70% of workers are foreign-born. Almost all are from Mexico.

Though they make up a majority of the workforce, there are very few opportunities for Hispanic workers to move from laborer to operator. Most farm operators in the United States are white men in their late 50’s. For them, farming is a multigenerational career.

 

Oxnard, California


Meanwhile, most farm workers have an average of just thirteen years of farm work under their belt, lack access to capital, have low educational and language attainment, and often lack agriculture-specific expertise beyond the manual labor they’ve completed in the fields.

This is the story of agriculture we often hear — i.e., that of the struggling farm worker — and one that is all too well-known in the Hispanic farmworker community. But there is also another story, and it’s the one that Sanchez is trying to amplify through his work with the Future Farmers of America (FFA).

“With my parents I saw the hard work, but with FFA I’ve also been able to see the leadership side of agriculture,” he said. “I’ve seen the opportunities, too.”

 

Luis Sanchez, 2014–2015 California FFA State Sentinel


FFA was founded in 1925. At the time, farmers — mostly white — earned very little and did grueling work, similar to what most Hispanic farmworkers do today. The sons of American farmers were expected to take over their fathers’ operations, but many began leaving agriculture altogether. In an effort to retain more talent for the agriculture industry, FFA aimed to instill a sense of pride in farm boys by providing them with leadership training and an outlet to express themselves.

Today, FFA can best be described as one part classroom-style education and one part extracurricular club. FFA chapters are fully integrated into high schools like the one Sanchez attended in Gonzales, California. In the classroom, FFA members learn agricultural science — including crop science and animal biology, which count towards their science credit requirements — and in some cases trade skills like welding and mechanics, which count as electives. Outside the classroom, they grow crops, raise livestock for show and sale, participate in research trials and job shadows, and compete against each other and FFA members from other schools in leadership skills such as public speaking, job interviewing and parliamentary procedure. FFA members do all of this alongside their normal high school schedule.

FFA’s basic structure has changed very little over the generations, but Sanchez isn’t complaining. It may be low-tech, but to Sanchez and his peers, it’s effective.

 

FFA students line up at the registration area to be dispersed to their state finals and field day competitions at Cal-State Fresno on April 18, 2015
 


A handler holds a dairy cow for students to look over at the dairy cattle judging competition at the dairy unit of Cal-State Fresno
 


A student is tested on her tractor driving, backing and mounting skills on a modern farm tractor at Cal-State Fresno for the farm power and machinery competition
 


A handler holds a light horse for FFA students to judge at the light horse judging competition


Years after stepping foot in Monterey County, the story of the Sanchez family is one of success — though not in the agriculture industry. After working as a farm laborer for five years, Sanchez’s father went back to school, taking classes at night after coming in from the fields. In 2005 he opened his own carpet cleaning company, which he still runs today.

This reality for Hispanic farm workers today echoes the farm exodus that spurred the creation of the FFA in the early 1920s. Long hours and difficult work push many Hispanic farm workers, like Sanchez’s father, out of agriculture. According to a 2013 report from the Migration Policy Institute, children of farm workers rarely work in agriculture themselves. Most find it easier to achieve upward mobility by leaving agriculture, rather than trying to move up the agricultural job ladder — even if they would prefer to stay in the industry.

“People don’t want their kids to have that job,” Sanchez said of the work his mother and father did in the fields. Aside from the hard physical labor and long hours, farm laborers earn low wages, often finding themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty. Between 2007 and 2009 foreign-born crop workers earned an average of $8.89 per hour, eighty-five cents less than their U.S.-born counterparts.

‘The FFA creed begins, “I believe in the future of agriculture with a faith born not of words, but of deeds.” It is through deeds that FFA members — most of whom are high school students — are expected to learn both agricultural and leadership skills. But historically, most of FFA’s membership has been white.

The organization’s most recent statistics reveal that 67% of participants are Caucasian. While this number may reflect farm operators in the U.S., it is a far cry from what the agricultural labor force looks like today.

Sanchez first joined FFA during his freshman year at Gonzales High School. He was elected State Officer in April 2014, just as his senior year ended. Over the past year, he has had attended and spoken at agricultural leadership conferences across the state, taken part in industry tours, and visited 100 schools across California where to facilitate workshops for younger FFA members.

Because of his background, Sanchez is able to connect with both Hispanic farm worker parents and students in his own and surrounding communities. He’s also able to credibly encourage his peers to consider a career in agriculture. “I feel like I’m more relatable,” he said. “[The students] have a similar story to mine. I’m able to connect with their parents, because I know what it’s like to be in their position. I watched my own parents do it.”

Though anyone can join FFA, the race to hold state office is competitive. Only six graduating FFA members from the entire state are elected each year. In fact, competition is embedded in the FFA culture and ultimately turns out students like Sanchez, who are driven to achieve.

Sanchez is courteous, professional and articulate beyond his nineteen years. As a state officer, Sanchez says his aim is to connect to the Hispanic farm worker community in California and to bring immigration issues to light. It’s a goal he shares with the national FFA organization.

 

Luis Sanchez speaks at Reach Out, the 87th California State FFA conference at the Selland Arena in Fresno, CA


Three hours north of Sanchez’s hometown, in the Sacramento area, three high schools are currently enrolled in a pilot program to increase and support diversity in FFA’s membership. The program, which is supported by an economic development grant from Toyota, was originally rolled out in Texas, where it aimed to benefit mostly Hispanic students from low-income families. From there, the program moved to Athens, Georgia, where it was primarily targeted for black students, before finally arriving in California.

Frank Saldana, who works with the National FFA, said that while diversity has always been important to FFA, the program is the first the organization has undertaken at this scale. Each grant represents a four-year commitment to a region to the tune of $125,000 per year, and in each region three schools are selected to participate. After the pilot is complete, FFA plans to find more partners and take the program nationwide.

“It evens the playing field,” said Saldana. Before introducing the diversity program, FFA chapters in some districts with high minority populations would still see mostly Caucasian enrollment. The diversity programs have helped FFA chapters better resemble the demographics of the school district in which they’re based.

At two of the three California schools currently in the program, Hispanic students are represented at a greater rate in the FFA chapter than in the school population itself. Saldana also says they have seen an increase in minority participation at state and national events, and also in leadership positions such as the one Sanchez holds.

Right now, the grant money is primarily used to improve and expand on facilities. Schools may build barns or greenhouses for students to use in raising livestock and growing vegetables, or purchase equipment for harvesting and tending crops. In one school in Georgia, students sell the walnuts they grow to local businesses. Before the grant, the crop would go to waste because it couldn’t be harvested. Funds are also used to make it possible for students to participate in national-level events and activities.

Saldana says all of these things help raise the profile of the individual FFA chapters, making them more appealing to students and their families. With greater enrollment, it becomes clear to the community what the chapter can offer their students. At many of the schools that have participated in the program thus far, it has had a ripple effect, creating jobs as schools have hired more teachers to accommodate increased participation.

Everyone in the school is included in the program. Teachers are trained in personal development. School administrators are invited to participate in planning sessions, training exercises, and annual conferences. “At first, they’re wary,” said Saldana. “Many teachers are burned out from operating for years without enough resources, but by the time we’re three years in, they’re charged up.”

That energy is integral to creating what Saldana calls a “positive structure,” to support the program once the grant period ends.

Although the leadership skills the organization imparts can be used whether or not students pursue a career in agriculture, the FFA mission is clear on its intention to bring up the next generation of American agriculturalists.

Still, the organization has a long way to go. Nationally, just 22% of FFA members are Hispanic — far lower than the proportion they comprise on farms. African Americans make up 8%, and other minorities make up 3% of total enrollment.

Another hurdle: as competitive as FFA is, within chapters the program is also very cooperative. All students grow crops in the same greenhouses, share the chapter’s equipment, and travel together to events. This means it’s hard to precisely portion out the grant that goes directly to students of color. For the pilot, funds have simply been applied to districts where there are high minority populations. It’s unclear how well that approach would work to attract minority students in primarily Caucasian districts, such as in the midwest.

Though Sanchez did not benefit from a grant-driven FFA program, he insists that the nonprofit has had immeasurable effects on his future. With his term as State Officer coming to an end, he is college-bound. He plans to study to become a licensed Pest Control Advisor and return to his hometown. He hopes he can help farm operators design safe pesticide plans and advise farm workers on how to implement them in the same fields his parents worked not long ago.

His speaking skills, he says, will be put to use lobbying for effective legislation for Hispanic farm workers.

Photographs by Damon Casarez

 

Bright is made possible by funding from the New Venture Fund, and is supported by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


Photos by Damon Casarez    
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