The Commerce Journal

February 17, 2012

University program looks to ‘break barriers’ for local farmers

USDA-funded project in its second year

Caleb Slinkard
The Commerce Journal

COMMERCE — The Texas A&M University-Commerce Department of Agricultural Sciences, in conjunction with the Texas Agri-Life Extension Service and the Hopkins County Professional Agricultural Workers Association, is in the second year of a three year USDA grant that is funding a beginning farmer and rancher development program. The program, named Breaking Barriers, provides community-based workshops on agriculture and agribusiness, specifically for the Hispanic farming community of northeast Texas. Initially, the program focused on training Hispanic farmers on how to develop a business plan for farm operations in Hopkins County. The program’s focus is now shifting, according to project director and A&M-Commerce Associate Professor of Agricultural and Family Education Dr. Bob Williams.

“Even though we had success with the first part of the program, it was relatively small success,” he said. “We reached about 13 individuals and had six families involved. One of the challenges that emerged was that, with evening training, the parents often had to leave their children with someone else. In a two parent household, usually both spouses are interested in the program.”

Williams is focused on creating a model of partnership between local independent school districts and his team in community-based agricultural education.

“We’re talking to some of the local ISDs about doing some training with their agricultural science programs to where we can utilize their facilities for hands-on training that’s community-based,” he said. “We want to use some of our staff as the facilitators, but we also want to use their student groups to provide outreach activities of an agricultural nature to the children who need baby-sitting.”

This model hopefully will help break down many of the barriers that restrict Hispanic youth from pursuing careers in agriculture and will be able to be replicated by other projects.

“Our Hispanic youth need role models so that they can understand there are opportunities for them to become successful entrepreneurs in the agriculture industry, if they wish to go in that direction,” Williams said. “Many of them are descendants of individuals who did field work or migrant labor, and they associate agriculture and farming with hard work and little pay, and they consider it an unreliable source of income due to weather and harvest conditions.”

Educating Hispanic youth on their opportunities is one of the project’s main goals.

“What we’re trying to do is break those barriers and stereotypes for folks to see there are opportunities in agriculture,” Williams said. “With seven billion people on this planet, someone has to raise the food. Our population in Texas is growing rapidly, and educating entrepreneurs is part of what this institution agricultural education in general is about.”

The project team is staffed with individuals who have strong agricultural and Hispanic backgrounds. Dr. Theresa Duch-Carvallo is an extension associate and a full-time staff member that takes care of the day to day operations of the program. Originally from Mexico, Duch-Carvallo has a Ph.D. from Texas Tech and has experience with Hispanic oriented outreach programs. Dr. Jose Lopez is an assistant professor of agribusiness and ensures that the Spanish materials used by Breaking Barriers are technically accurate. Dr. Curtis Jones is an extension agronomist who works with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service provides crop science background on the project.

“We have three graduate assistants who are all from the same university in Honduras with agricultural backgrounds who are bilingual,” Williams said. “They help develop the instructional materials into Spanish, among other things.”

The project is looking at some technology for helping translate materials from Spanish to English for English-speaking participants. The model would use a microphone/receiver headset system that would allow translator Paulette Aguilar to speak with multiple individuals at the same time. Aguilar has a strong background in East Texas agriculture and understand the public school system well, according to Williams.

Janice Circles, the administrative assistant for the project and Roxanna Alvarado, a senior liberal studies major at A&M-Commerce, are also key members of the team.