In 2014, researchers at the University of New Mexico’s College of Population Health received funding from the Southwest Center for Agricultural Health, Injury Prevention and Education to explore health and safety issues among organic farmers in central New Mexico. “The small grant was instrumental for recruiting 30 farmers willing to talk about traditional occupational topics such as perception of risk, attitudes toward health and safety behaviors, and so on,” said lead investigator, Francisco Soto Mas.
This information is essential in order to develop initiatives that promote safer practices and healthier farmers. This qualitative inquiry opened the door to a myriad of participants’ perspectives that the investigators were not aware of nor had considered during the planning of the study. “The information the farmers shared was very relevant because it provided reliable data on the many contributions they are making to their communities, and these go way beyond food production and healthier food choices,” said Ryan Sanchez, a student in the Master’s in Public Health Program.
While the perceived benefits of organic farming generally relate to health and economics, the study found other valuable individual and collective benefits such as social network and social capital. The organic movement in the South Valley of Albuquerque has really interconnected small farmers who otherwise may have been working in isolation. Agri-Cultura Network is a good example. Young farmers rely on those who are more experienced for advice and training. The network facilitates the sharing of resources, promotes intellectual development and provides trusted social support. “Studies have shown that the extent and nature of one’s social relationships affect one’s health, and strong networks produce collective benefits,” said Soto Mas.
Laura Morris and Christina Brigance, also students in the Master’s in Public Health Program, pointed out that “prior research has related human capital to productivity and economic growth and also to health status, and the results from this study are no different.” The farmers spoke of their concern about the health and safety of their communities and employees and emphasized their focus on this, even above their own welfare. Agriculture is known to sometimes be dangerous work, but the organic farmers who participated in this study did not necessarily see it that way. Instead, these farmers see organic farming as an opportunity to take a more holistic approach to health than merely being physically healthy. They also appreciate the total person concept, which is more consistent with international ideas of health that factor in intellectual, mental, spiritual and social health in with physical health. The concept is rooted in the realization that work is a social determinant of health and that communities and individuals are greatly impacted by job-related factors including workload, wages, stress levels, relationships with coworkers and access to healthy workplaces.
Many participants in the study also indicated that they engage in community-oriented activities that promote cultural connections and social justice. These may lead to an increase in community trust, which enhances social capital and ultimately facilitates behaviors that promote health and well-being in that community.
In the words of one of the farmers, “With the overall vision of doing all this community organizing work and all this garden work with kids, schools and families, [we want] to be a strong network of people that can then speak out on policy issues… And so, sure, gardening, food and health is our primary concern, but also secondary to that is this more systemic change that we can effect by being a community and by having relationships with one another.”
“This illustrates how they feel their role in the community goes beyond producing food for the abstract market,” said Rose Rohrer, a sociology student. Further, many of the organizations supporting local farmers work to blur or erase the boundary between farmer and consumer, engaging in practices that encourage local participation in food production, such as community-supported agriculture (CSA) initiatives. These practices are often rooted in social, economic and environmental justice goals.
The perspectives identified by the study are consistent with the principles of the organic movement, which include health, ecology, fairness and care. “These particularly emerged when participants were asked questions about organic farming in New Mexico. Despite the hardships of managing organic agriculture operations, what remains strong is the farmer’s passion for providing a healthy commodity that is produced with care for the environment and the people,” said Kristyn Yepa, a student who also runs a community garden project in Jemez Pueblo.
“Organic farming is a rapidly growing occupation, experiencing nearly a 250 percent increase since 2002. There are an estimated 19,474 certified organic farmers across the country,” said Scott Oglesbee, another student involved in the project. Although organic farming has become the fastest-growing segment of New Mexico agriculture, there are only 116 certified producers in the state, according to the agricultural census. The USDA oversees a rigorous certification process, including a 36-month embargo on use of land that has been used for inorganic farming. This keeps products quality-controlled but may be a barrier for many farmers seeking to enter the profession. While there is increasing demand for organic products, the point at which market supply meets demand is unknown.
Also in need of further research is whether the findings of this small study in central New Mexico apply to the rest of the state and the country. There is very little literature on the health and safety of organic farmers or on the potential collective benefits of organic production. We do know that communities near farms that switch to organic production benefit from a less toxic/polluted environment, and that small organic farmers are contributing to the development of local food systems and healthier food choices. “So, we really need to find ways to encourage more people to consider becoming an organic farmer, and identify the individual, social and policy factors that may facilitate that process,” said Soto Mas.
This article was produced by the Organic Farming Study research team and the MPH Program Integrative Experience study group at the University of New Mexico, including Francisco Soto Mas, Laura Morris, Kristyn Yepa, Ryan Sánchez, Christina Brigance, Rose Rohrer and Scott Oglesbee.