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EcoFarm embraces diversity

Spanish language workshops, equity and justice, international delegation, and female farmers

By Amy Wu
California is considered one of the most diverse states in the U.S. especially when it comes to its population. The state is a melting pot of races and ethnicities and languages; according to the latest U.S. Census there were 37% whites, 39% Hispanic or Latino followed by 15% Asian. That said, diversity – as defined by race and gender -- has not been readily reflected in the agriculture sector in the state especially when it comes to representation at industry conferences and gatherings.
As a woman and a woman of color who reports about the agriculture sector and one who has attended various industry gatherings including EcoFarm, I observed the lack of people of color at industry conferences, summits and meetings. Often, I could count the number of Asians on my fingers. But there are concerted efforts to change what continues to be a reality.
Four years ago, EcoFarm – one of the leading conferences in the west coast in organic farming -- made a concerted effort to make diversity a priority for the organization and its flagship annual conference. A Diversity Advisory Group was formed, an international delegation was invited to the annual conference, and there started serious planning sessions on how to attract more native Spanish speakers to cater to a population significant to the state and farming. In 2019 the organization stepped up efforts to bring in women keynote speakers, and the conference lineup also included a “Women in Regenerative Agriculture Field Day” and “Women in Food & Ag Mixer.”
“Community has been at the center of the EcoFarm organization and experience since its inception. In recent years, EcoFarm has come to the realization that our community has not been as inclusive as it should be,” says Andy Fisher, EcoFarm’s executive director, noting that the Diversity Advisory Group and many members of the EcoFarm community have contributed to the positive changes including a greater diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, occupation, and age among other characteristics. “While we are on the right track and making important inroads in this area, broadening the diversity of the conference is a small step on a long journey toward EcoFarm being a powerful vehicle for catalyzing justice, whether it be economic, social, gender, or racial in nature.”
As EcoFarm celebrates its 40th anniversary, “diversity” and all aspects of this term are not only interwoven into the organization’s mission but at the forefront of the conference. With the 40th conference “20/20 Vision” around the corner, there are many examples on how diversity plays a part in everything from workshops and panels to speakers and mixers. 
Diversity is a part of this year’s keynote speaker line up: 
Leah Penniman, a Black Kreyol educator and farmer and co-founder of Soul Fire Farm will speak on “Visionaries in the Field: Weaving Together Ecology and Equity.” Soul Fire offers powerful food sovereignty programs including farmer training for Black & Brown people, a subsidized farm food distribution program for communities living under food apartheid, and domestic and international organizing toward equity in the food system. 
Emigdio Ballon, a native of Bolivia and of Quechua descent, will share insight on “Successful Organic Farmers.” Ballon is the Director of Agriculture at the Pueblo of Tesuque, and has been overseeing a 75-acre organic and biodynamic farm since 2005. The Tesuque Farm strives to help those interested in growing their own food, in addition to growing crops for elders and students, and saving indigenous seed from around the world. The farm’s seed bank was featured in the film “Seed: The Untold Story.”
Vandana Shiva, a world-renowned scholar and advocate for economic, food, and gender justice, will talk about “Two Paths to the Future of Food and Farming” that addresses the importance of biodiversity. Shiva also founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology which was dedicated to high quality and independent research to address the most significant ecological and social issues of our times in close partnership with local communities and social movements.

Diversity in programming

Members of the Diversity Advisory Committee and Planning Committee played a role in choosing panels/workshops that cover a wide spectrum of topics and themes. The conference’s fourteen “tracks” embody diversity with a few of the following as examples.
Equity, Food Justice & Sovereignty includes workshops and discussions such as Women Owned and Open for Business, the History of California Native Peoples (that includes a historical overview of Native Americans in Central Coast, Califonia) and Women of Color in Agriculture, which will highlight some of the many challenges faced by women of color in agriculture. In a session on Black Agrarianism, Leah Penniman will give a history of African-American farmers, and a discussion group will focus on queerness and sustainability.
The momentum continues with discussions, panels and mixers that highlight women in farming and ranching. One of the pre-conference daylong events is "Women/Womxn in Food & Agriculture: A Force with Nature” spotlights women leaders in farming and includes discussions on prejudice, discrimination, and institutional barriers womxn have faced. Back this year is a discussion workshop for women in agriculture, which bookends with the long running Women in Food and Agriculture Discussion Group & Mixer.
Diversity has been woven into tracks such as History and Farm Business. A session I am hosting and moderating is An Untold History: Asians in Farming, that spotlights the contributions of the Japanese, Chinese and Filipino farmers in the Salinas Valley, which will feature Larry Hirahara and Robina Bhatti. This session was inspired by my time living and working in Salinas as I reflected on the noticeable population of Japanese farmers in Salinas. Farmworkers are the main topic of a session on farmworkers and future policies, which addresses everything from the need for more housing to their overall rights.

Spanish speakers

Another organizational goal has been to attract more native Spanish speakers to the conference. While many workshops and panels will offer simultaneous translation, this year’s conference (similar to 2019) will feature a separate and full line up of workshops all in Spanish. This is part of a collaboration with ALBA, and a EcoFarm committee led by Nathan Harkleroad and Deborah Nares who helped build the Spanish language track.
Javier Zamora, an organic grower in the Salinas Valley, and a long time EcoFarm board member also played a leading role in increasing Spanish language workshops to EcoFarm. This year he is speaking on numerous panels, and also leading a Spanish workshop on year-round strawberry production.
Diversity is a necessity and not an option and says conferences should “reflect what the communities are like,” Zamora says. “I will be really happy when I see EcoFarm and other conferences reflect what our communities look like. Our communities are very diverse and the farming community has not shown that in the past – the farm owners have been white, Japanese or Portugese but not Hispanic. Hispanic have always been a major part of the workforce. These days it makes me happy to see more Hispanics are owning farms.”
Still, Zamora says there is a long way to go when it comes to bringing in voices and communities that reflect California and the sector. Discussion of land ownership and targeted outreach communities are critical. This involves reaching out to more parts of the state such as the Central Valley and Orange County where there are pockets of ethnic farm producers who are “important parts of the food chain.”
“It is paying attention to the minority part,” says Zamora, who started JSM Organics in 2012 in Royal Oaks just outside of Salinas.  “If it is if difficult for a white kid to have access to land think of the other kid that is brown that has so many things against him.”  While EcoFarm and the conference has “moved to reflect more of what that farming community and all the organic community is about, we have quite a bit of road to continue on. I want to see a little more brownness out there.”
Rebecca North, Director of Procurement at The FruitGuys, helped organize a number of this year’s diversity related workshops including the “Women/Womxn in Ag preconference,” and the “Queer Visions for a Sustainable future” discussion group. In moving forward, North suggests EcoFarm as an organization “needs to look at who we are inviting to sit at the table and who has the power to make decisions.”
Finally, EcoFarm 2020 welcomes a special international agroecology delegation of small coffee growers from Central America, who are coming to EcoFarm to learn and also share more about their practices. Peter Ruddock, a co-founder of EcoFarm's Diversity Advisory Group who is organizing the delegation, says bringing over farmers from around the world is an excellent example of knowledge exchange. The delegation is presenting at EcoFarm on January 23 from 3:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. 
“People in other countries often have different ways of doing things than we do.  It's so important to have a way to exchange information with them, to learn from one another.  It strengthens all involved,” says Ruddock.
While much has changed for the better since 2016, EcoFarm as an organization needs to keep its eye on the ball, Ruddock says. “EcoFarm set itself a goal to match the demographic diversity of California, in attendees, speakers, volunteers, board and staff.  It is much more diverse than when we began this effort, but there is much more work to do,” he says. “Later this month we'll hold the fourth EcoFarm Conference under advisement from the Group, which keeps getting stronger and stronger. We're in this for the long run.”
For more information on the International Agroecology Delegation click here.
To learn more about EcoFarm Conference visit
Amy Wu is the founder and chief content director of “From Farms to Incubators,” a multimedia storytelling platform that highlights women innovators in agtech. She is a member of EcoFarm’s Diversity Advisory Committee and will present at this year’s conference. She considers herself bicoastal and splits her time between New York and California.