Opportunities to work in the food system, at many scales, are plentiful but, often, only for a select few. Greater diversity and inclusivity is needed to both educate a diverse audience on food system practices and welcome newcomers to the space. Many small-scale and sustainable farms throughout the United States offer farm-based internship and apprenticeship programs, providing immersive education and training on all aspects of running a small farm. These internship programs are an opportunity to connect a larger, younger, and more diverse population with sustainable agriculture, and offer pathways to social empowerment that could be particularly important for many underserved and marginalized individuals.1 In this paper, we share some evidence on farm-based internship program diversity and inclusivity by drawing on a qualitative study conducted on farms throughout the United States. Specifically, we explore how inclusive farm-based internship programs are and what that means for the future of food systems in general. Finally, we end with some recommendations to enhance inclusivity in farm internships, with a particular focus on marginalized youth.
Farming and inclusivity may seem to be an inherently disconnected pair of words, and for many, farming probably does not evoke thoughts of diversity, inclusion, or accepting spaces. This may be valid, as the demographic information released in the most recent 2012 Census of Agriculture reflects, on average, an overwhelmingly white, male, and aging population of farmers in the United States.2 This is not to say that some areas (i.e. the Southwestern United States) are not more diverse but average trends lack diversity. Multiple statistics illustrate the importance of attention to diversity and inclusion in farming. The average age of farmers, currently at 58.3 years, has steadily increased over the past thirty years, while the total number of farmers has decreased by 4.3% since 2007.2 Simultaneously, the number of new farmers has continued to decline, down about 20% since 2007. 2 Further, 92.8% of all principal farm operators are white; women only account for 14% of principal operators; and nearly 80% of both female and minority operated farms have annual sales of less than $10,000.2,3 The lack of diversity on farms and the diminishing number of farmers is concerning for the future of agriculture in the United States, and strategies should be developed to revitalize this crucial livelihood, inspire a renewed interest in farming, and empower a robust, new, and diverse generation of farmers. This new generation could originate from underserved populations to connect farms to an affordable and invested labor pool, and individuals to job opportunities that could provide them with pathways to social empowerment, connection, community, and love.
Marginalized, and multiply marginalized young people, such as those who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Queer (LGBTQ), people of color, women, immigrants, and low-income individuals, experience a range of unique challenges in education, housing, familial support, and career and economic development.4-6 LGBTQ youth and youth of color experience a disproportionate level of state support (e.g., school-based support) largely due to instabilities associated with familial rejection and lower socioeconomic status.4,5 Additionally, LGBTQ youth are twice as likely to be detained by law enforcement for non-violent offenses, such as running away or truancy, than their heterosexual peers.4,5 Subsequently, a single criminal conviction could result in life-limiting consequences for these youth, including: “…restricted access to housing, eviction, denial of public benefits including educational loans, exclusion from professions, and even deportation”4 Such trends reinforce the oppressive cycle in which marginalized and underserved youth find themselves. In addition to the rejection they face at school, these individuals often find themselves in unstable, and even dangerous, living conditions because of familial rejection, physical or emotional abuse, or financial circumstances.
Snapp et al.5 refer to homelessness as the “crux of the [school-to-prison] pipeline,” particularly for LGBTQ youth. Maccio and Ferguson (2016)7 report that 20-40% of runaway and homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, making them overrepresented in the homeless youth population. Many LGBTQ youth are at a particularly high risk of homelessness because they may be cast out by their families, or their current living situation may become too traumatic.5 As a result, marginalized youth are more vulnerable to arrest, even if they are not involved in illegal activities.5 In addition to LGBTQ youth, there are other marginalized youth and non-youth communities, such as people of color and native Americans, who are targeted. Musu-Gillette et al. found that, “In 2011–12, a higher percentage of Black public school students than of public school students from any other racial/ethnic group received an out-of school suspension (15.4 percent)” (p. iv).8 When it comes to homelessness in the United States, 46.3% and 60.7% of all homeless people in families were African American and women, respectively, in 2016. It is important to notice that nearly 99% of all these households had parents between 18 and 24 years of age.9 For Native Americans, a recurrent theme of concern is employment. Austin, when reporting data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau 2013, states that “in 2011, about one in four American Indians and Alaska Natives (26.4 percent) lived in poverty. In contrast, about one in 10 non-Hispanic whites (11 percent) lived in poverty” (n.p.).10 These underrepresented communities could be an important resource for farming through an effective engagement of a larger, younger, and more diverse group of potential farmers.
Farm-Based Internships as a Solution
The proliferation of farming as a life path for young people could contribute to changing the stigma against farming as an undesirable occupation into a valued job opportunity. Engaging an increasingly young and diverse population with farming could contribute to sustainability outcomes through economic, environmental, and social benefits. Farm-based internship and apprenticeship programs have the potential to provide marginalized youth with inclusive educational opportunities and alternative pathways to career development and independence. This economic opportunity both empowers the individual and provides farms with a consistent and invested source of labor.
While each program varies depending on a farm’s needs and specifications, there are plentiful opportunities for hands-on engagement with the food system through farms that specialize in vegetable, livestock, dairy, and poultry production. Farm interns are expected to work diligently, but are rewarded with valuable farming experience, technical skills, complimentary housing, and monthly stipends that vary with each program. Many internship programs teach skills beyond farm expertise, such as knitting, welding, cooking, and carpentry, and make an effort to enhance the sense of community on the farm by offering shared meals, for example. Working outside on a farm can also promote the environmental benefits of a deepened connection to nature and increase awareness and appreciation of sustainable food production. When farming is viewed as a legitimate occupation, there is an opportunity to provide pathways for marginalized people to break out of the cycles of systemic oppression, and gain access to a work environment that fosters community, love, connection to the environment, and economic success. In the next section, we describe some of the potential benefits of linking marginalized communities via inclusive farming environments.
Natural Environment and Workplace Diversity Benefits
Individuals often exposed to the natural environment, such as those who work on a farm, experience benefits associated with an increased connection to nature. These benefits can be physical, mental, spiritual, knowledge-based, and identity-based.11
1. Physical. A farm-based work environment requires diligent work, while also enhancing physical fitness through daily tasks and increased access to nature-based activities.
2. Mental. Being exposed to nature can “induce positively valued changes in cognition and emotion,”12 which then impacts health and well-being, and could help individuals recover from stressed environments. Additionally, individuals who are consistently surrounded by the natural environment have an easier time coping with major life obstacles.11
3. Spiritual. Experiences in nature can stimulate a deeper understanding or interest in the role that spirituality and interconnectedness plays in the world.11 Such experiences can be important in a person’s life to improve outlook, mood, and overall life satisfaction.13
4. Knowledge-based. Nature provides a place to rejuvenate, establish focus, and concentrate, as supported by attention restoration theory.11 Increased attention can lead to heightened awareness and improved cognition.
5. Identity-based. Adequate access to nature can help solidify identities through an identity-landscape connection, wherein individuals or cultures establish a sense of place and strongly correlate themselves with their landscape.11
Every individual should be able to take advantage of the benefits listed above. Increased access to farming internships, and subsequently the benefits they provide, is advantageous for both individual well-being and the prosperity of small farms. A diverse workforce can positively impact the productivity of a workplace by presenting a wide range of life experiences and opinions that feed into decision-making. A combination of unique qualities drawn from diverse workers leads to enhanced group decisions and predictions,14 creativity, innovation, and problem-solving.15 A diversified workforce also leads to increased awareness of other cultures, enhancing personal growth and appreciation of individuals with different backgrounds. This strengthened process then bolsters the quality of outputs,14 making products more desirable and increasing revenue for the company. These benefits of corporate workplace inclusivity have been widely researched and are important, but there is a gap in the research when it comes to outcomes from inclusion and the benefits for farming. There are 3.2 million farmers across 2.1 million farms in the United States,2 so for millions of people the farm is a workplace. Because the benefits of inclusivity in the workplace are well-understood and widely distributed, it is important that a farm is understood as another workplace that might experience similar outcomes from increased diversity and inclusion.
Are Existing Programs Inclusive?
To assess whether existing internship programs may provide inclusive, safe working environments for a diverse workforce, we conducted a study of national farm-based internship programs. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with thirteen farm owners and managers across the United States to elicit sincere and open responses with respect to perceptions of diversity and inclusion on their respective farms. These interviews provided insight into the current level of inclusivity on farms as well as the willingness to establish inclusive and diverse spaces if not already present.
Interview Analysis and Discussion
The average age of interview participants, including both the farm owners and managers, was 43, and the average age of farm owners was 52. These averages are similar to the national averages reported in the 2012 Census of Agriculture, and highlight the fact that farmers are an aging group. Even in the increasingly trendy, small-scale, sustainable farming world, there is an insufficient number of young, new farmers.
The interviews revealed a heavy emphasis on dedication to the education and training of future farmers, creating a sense of community, the advantages of working in a natural farming environment, and an expressed interest in increasing diversity and inclusion within the internship programs. There was a general sense of caring and openness, and a dedication to ensuring the interns’ experience on their farm is positive, educational, and rewarding. The benefits of farm-based internship programs that most survey participants reinforced is best articulated by a survey participant: “You would be safe, you would be loved, you would have an instant family and instant grandparents…you can’t go to Walmart and get a job that includes an apartment and food and safety and a family”.16
A holistic assessment of inclusivity of the programs cannot be achieved based solely on the farm owners’ and managers’ own thoughts and opinions. Yet, it became clear that the lack of diversity amongst the programs can be largely attributed to a uniform applicant pool – comprised largely of white, middle-class, college educated individuals – for farm operators to choose from. For example, one interviewee explained, “the applicants that we get don’t necessarily come from a very broad spectrum of our overall population. So maybe we haven’t had as much opportunity to be inclusive as we could be”.17 Participants almost uniformly expressed an explicit concern with the lack of diversity on their farm, and a desire to have a more diverse and inclusive workplace. However, it is important to note that in some parts of the US, the pool of farm workers tends to be more diverse. In fact, farmers in the eastern part of the country are largely Latino/Hispanic and indigenous.18 In addition, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that in 2013-2014, 74% of farmworkers in the US spoke Spanish as their primary language.19
From our results, the lack of diversity amongst applicants may be influenced by several different factors. First, a lack of awareness of these programs and the opportunities they provide may exist in more diverse populations of society. Next, farming culture’s lack of diversity and acceptance may be a deterrent for many. Finally, the historical context of farming in relation to particular racial and ethnic groups must also be considered. Attention and sensitivity to these issues could be crucial to the success of efforts to expand outreach and participation in farming internships.
Multiple steps can be taken to expand inclusivity in existing internship programs and to promote farming as a viable pathway for marginalized young people. We encourage a threefold approach to accomplishing these goals:
1. Increased outreach and awareness of farm-based internship programs.
2. More inclusive terminology on internship descriptions.
3. Further research into interns’ experiences and best case scenarios, and factors affecting willingness to participate in such programs.
Increased outreach on behalf of both the farms themselves and programs that support farmers, such as the Future Farmers of America (FFA) and the USDA Special Emphasis Programs, could disseminate greater knowledge and awareness of the existence of the farm-based internship programs, as well as contradict any stigma against farming as a viable profession. The USDA Special Emphasis Programs were developed for the purpose of “achieving diversity, inclusion, and equal opportunity in employment activities”20 in the agricultural sector for people with disabilities, veterans, racial and ethnic minorities, women, and LGBT folks. By recognizing the importance of farming internship programs to engage more young and diverse participants, the Special Emphasis Programs could be compelled to increase efforts to connect individuals with these internships. In addition to increased outreach, language that portrays a dedication to inclusivity could also be used to further develop an accepting atmosphere in farming.
Does Inclusivity Really Matter?
We believe inclusivity matters and is essential to the development of a strategy to address the lack of diversity and the aging population in farming. Introducing inclusivity in farming enhances the work environment by expanding well-being and productivity, increases equity by providing every person an opportunity to be involved, and helps promote a sustainable future of farming by providing opportunities for a younger, larger, and more diverse group to engage in agriculture. Participation in farming internships also encourages a deepened connection to the environment and the food system, while advocating for the preservation of small-scale and sustainable farming practices. These programs have the potential to provide a much-needed space to build community and connection, and to be embraced and loved, which is what we all ultimately seek. Expanding outreach and increasing awareness of farming as an educational and career pathway are not limited to one community, state, or country, and ultimately has the potential to integrate inclusivity into farming throughout the world.
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