Farming as a Latinx: Analyzing how ethnic and gender identities shape Latino/a participation in sustainable agriculture in Pennsylvania

Progress report for GNE21-266

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2021: $14,923.00
Projected End Date: 07/31/2024
Grant Recipient: Penn State University
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Kathleen Sexsmith
Penn State University
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Project Information

Project Objectives:
  1. Identify the economic, production-related, informational, and educational barriers Latino/a farmer’s face in establishing a profitable, sustainable farming enterprise and the strategies they use to overcome those barriers.
  2. Develop a better understanding of Latino/a farmers' aspirations and desires to enter commercial markets for sustainable agriculture by scaling up and expanding their farm businesses.
  3. Identify the paths that Latino farmers have followed to become sustainable farm owners and the relevance of masculine identities in facilitating and/or constraining the process.
  4. Provide sustainable agriculture organizations supporting Latino/a farmers in Pennsylvania, specifically Penn State Extension and PASA, with evidence-based recommendations designed to support successful farming production to improve quality of life for Latino/a farmers in the sustainable agriculture sector.

This study will identify barriers faced by Latino/a farmers to participate and thrive in sustainable agriculture and propose recommendations to promote viable and sustainable farming operations. Latino/a farmers in the U.S. are the largest ethnoracial producers' group (USDA-NASS 2019c). However, as farm owners they face several limitations, including lack of access to start-up capital, land, labor, and markets. Immigrant farmers confront various challenges to successful farming related to their citizenship status, ethnoracial differences, linguistic barriers, and literacy/educational limitations. Despite the multiple obstacles, these new farmers' production strategies reflect the alternative food movement's vision of a sustainable, multiracial food system (Minkoff-Zern 2019).

Immigrant Latino/a farmers in the U.S. are very likely to engage in sustainable agriculture to gain independence and reconnect to their culture and agrarian roots (Minkoff-Zern 2019). Due to their increasing numbers and meaningful contributions throughout the U.S., they are poised to play leadership roles in the sustainable agriculture movement. However, the successful pursuit of sustainable agriculture is intimately tied to gender identity (Leslie 2017). Indeed,  agriculture in the U.S has been associated with traditional forms of hegemonic masculinities, which influences what is understood and framed as good farming (Bell 2004). Similarly, the image of the American 'country boy' associated with conventional agriculture has conditioned farmers' identities to conform to conventional production principles (Campbell et al. 2006), leading to unsustainable farming practices (Brasier et al. 2014). Moreover, Bell et al. (2015) showed that the trend of masculine farming identities is deeply entrenched in representations of the masculine that promote conventional agriculture as the best way to farm. Understanding the motivations, aspirations, and limitations of Latino 'country boys' as a population willing to engage in sustainable agriculture in a context where rural masculinities are associated with conventional farming is critical to support their farms and sustainable practices. Additionally, to date, there has been no research on Latino masculinities in U.S agriculture.

Research in western industrialized farming contexts shows that women farmers are likely to engage in sustainable practices (Sachs et al. 2016). Literature on gender and development focusing on the Global South has shown that men act as gatekeepers for women’s access to resources and equity in agriculture (Connell 2005). Exploring how rural Latino masculinities become reproduced or reshaped in the new U.S. agricultural context, and how that, in turn, might shape women’s agency and participation in sustainable agriculture, is critical to understanding the potential of Latinos to contribute successfully to the sustainable agriculture movement.

Through in-depth qualitative interviews and participant observation, this research will seek to answer: (1) What obstacles do Latino/a and Hispanic farmers face as they transition to owning and managing successful sustainable farming operations, and what strategies do they employ to overcome these obstacles? (2) What are their aspirations concerning scaling up and entering commercial markets for sustainable agriculture? (3) How do rural Latin American masculinities become reproduced or reshaped in the U.S. as they establish themselves as sustainable farmers, and how does this impact the ability of women and men farmers to meet sustainability goals?


Materials and methods:

This research will utilize qualitative research design to (1) identify the economic, production-related, informational, and educational barriers Latino/a farmer’s face in establishing a profitable, sustainable farming enterprise and the strategies they use to overcome those barriers; (2) Develop a better understanding of Latino/a farmers' aspirations and desires to enter commercial markets for sustainable agriculture by scaling up and expanding their farm businesses; (3) identify the paths that Latino farmers have followed to become sustainable farm owners and the relevance of masculine identities in facilitating and/or constraining the process; and (4) provide sustainable agriculture organizations supporting Latino/a farmers in Pennsylvania, specifically Penn State Extension and PASA, with evidence-based recommendations designed to support successful farming production to improve quality of life for Latino/a farmers in the sustainable agriculture sector.

This research will take place in Pennsylvania and will focus on sustainable farms across the state. The 2017 Census of Agriculture identified 759 producers of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin (USDA-NASS 2019b), a significant increase from the 652 farms reported in 2012 (USDA-NASS 2014). In-depth semi-structured interviews and participant observation methods will be used to collect the data. To increase the study’s validity, the researcher will rely on methodological triangulation. Methodological triangulation refers to the use of multiple qualitative or quantitative methods to answer the research questions (Guion et al. 2011). In-depth interviews are a qualitative research tool to provide a better understanding of the meanings and interpretations that people give to their context. It also provides a personal approach to raise the voices of those who are usually not heard (Ritchie et al. 2014). One limitation of using interviews to understand how men can be men in agriculture is that respondents' stories may fail to give a 'true' picture of their everyday lives. Thus, participant observation is useful to examine how things are done or practiced in everyday life. Participant observation is a qualitative research tool that includes the use of information gained from participating and observing through explicit recording and analysis (DeWalt and DeWalt 2002). Participant observation can provide evidence of how gender roles are performed, how tasks are assigned, how power is negotiated, how men interact with other men and women, and how men and women use their bodies as part of their gender identities (Little and Leyshon 2003). Moreover, since gender is performed differently in different situations and locations (Järviluoma et al. 2012) participant observation is a good method to record those differences.

Approximately 40 in-depth interviews will be conducted individually with Latino/a farmers. In-depth interviews will be an essential tool to discuss their lived experiences of inclusion and barriers in sustainable agriculture spaces. The interviews will examine their interactions with extension agents, the agricultural organizations they are part of, the type of support they receive from these, collaborations with other farmers, and their experiences on the places where they sell their products. The discussion will also include farmers' perceptions of how organizations supporting Latino/a farmers can reduce those barriers. If available, women farmers will be interviewed to further explore gendered views of barriers to sustainable farming and gendered roles in agricultural production how those gendered views may have changed as compared to when the family lived in Latin America.

Collecting data through participant observation requires a deeper involvement in the activities performed by the study participants. Thus, the researcher will request to observe a workday and offer help with farm or market activities. Fieldnotes from participant observation will be relevant to gain a better understanding of how gender roles are performed, how tasks are assigned, how power is negotiated during interactions at the farm and selling venues. Data from participant observations will consist of fieldnotes about male and female activities at the farm and the market, performances of masculinity and femininity, farmers’ characteristics, the decision-making process within the farm, interactions at the farm with other Latino males and at the market with clients and other farmers. Fieldnotes will also include observations about their everyday activities, challenges, and strategies to overcome barriers in sustainable farming. This will include how they: navigate language barriers, finance their farm activities, organize the family work, hire labor, access knowledge to support their activities, work with extension agents, and access government institutions.    

The in-depth interviews will be recorded, transcribed, and a mix of structural, descriptive, and in vivo coding will be used to analyze in their analysis (Saldaña 2016). The field notes from the participant observation will be coded using a mix of structural, descriptive, and in vivo coding for further analysis. Structural coding is a coding technique that applies a content-based phrase representing a topic related to the research question. Descriptive coding is useful to identify emerging topics in the text. Finally, in vivo is relevant to code emerging topics throughout the interview and to include elements that can be useful to "honor the participant's voice" (Saldaña 2016:106). To identify elements of gender performance, for the fieldnotes the researchers will also include process coding. Process coding uses gerund (‘-ing’ words) to connote action in the data (Charmaz 2001), which is appropriate to identify routines and rituals of human life (Saldaña 2016). The data will be coded and analyzed using the NVivo software. To ensure coding reliability, the advising faculty member will code ten percent of the transcripts and compare results with the graduate student investigator. All four project objectives will be a part of the graduate research investigator's Ph.D. dissertation.

The support of Penn State Extension is essential for this research to gain access to Latino/a farmers. Penn State Extension has worked with Latino/a farmers in Pennsylvania through programs that include bilingual workshops, online education, and fact sheets on topics such as farm safety, good agricultural practices, and the federal Food Safety and Modernization Act. For the past ten years, Penn State Extension has provided bilingual sessions at the annual Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Growers Convention and created a program to assist beginning farmers in Pennsylvania, emphasizing women and Hispanic and Latino farmers. Moreover, in 2019 Penn State Extension formed the Latinx Agricultural Network what led to the creation of the Facebook page Penn State Extension Agricultura en Español. Thus, Penn State Extension, through its extension agents, will be a vital gatekeeper to identify and contact possible informants.

Respondents will be gathered using purposive and snowball sampling. In purposive sampling, the researcher selects participants who can provide as much information as possible about matters of central importance to the study (Mathison 2013). The participants are chosen because they have particular characteristics, that will enable detailed exploration and understanding of the questions addressed by the researcher (Bryman 2012). In addition, snowball sampling is a qualitative research technique useful to access hidden populations. More specifically, the investigator gathers the research subjects by identifying initial participants who provide names of other actors relevant to the study (Frey 2018). 

Purposive sampling will be used through a partnership with Penn State Extension. Partner organizations will receive a letter from Penn State Extension that will include the information about the study and the contact information of the graduate student investigator. In the recruitment letter, the confidentiality of this project will be emphasized to alleviate any concerns about immigration status questions. Further respondents will be recruited using snowball sampling based on the recommendations of those interviewed. To be eligible to participate in the study, participants must currently live in Pennsylvania, own/operate a farm, and be at least 18 years old. Prospective subjects are expected to be primarily Spanish-speaking or English-speaking. Regarding the recruitment criteria, this study will focus on farms that are low input, small-scale, crop diverse, and rely on family labor. Farms presetting the before mentioned characteristics will be considered as sustainable operations for this study. All information circulated to recruit participants, the consent form, and interviews will all be provided and conducted in both languages. The interviews in Spanish or English will be conducted by the graduate student researcher, who is fluent in both languages.

To address objective 1) Identify the economic, production-related, informational, and educational barriers Latino/a farmer’s face in establishing a profitable, sustainable farming enterprise and the strategies they use to overcome those barriers, qualitative in depth-interviews will be used. Research participants will be asked about their current agricultural activities. These questions will include their current crops and how they decided to farm those crops, the agricultural practices they perform at the farm, how they finance their production or find information about the agronomical aspects of their farm business. The participants will also be asked about the markets they use to sell their products with a focus on how they found those spaces, the limitations they have faced to sell their products, the strategies they have devised to overcome those obstacles, and the institutions that are supporting their activities. The interviews will be coordinated in advance with the informants in order to include a tour of the farm to get a better understanding of their activities.

To address objective 2) develop a better understanding of Latino/a farmers' aspirations and desires to enter commercial markets for sustainable agriculture by scaling up and expanding their farm businesses, qualitative in-depth interviews will be used. Through in-depth interviews it will be explored what are their aspirations and desires regarding their farm, how do they plan to achieve those goals, how they are planning to increase their farms' incomes and what difficulties do they envision to achieve those aspirations. These questions will explore the contacts in their social networks that are relevant to maintain their farms, how they use those contacts and what kind of support they can expect. These questions will explore their desires and reasons to remain in sustainable agriculture, to expand their sustainable production, or potentially to transition to conventional agriculture.

To address objective 3) Identify the paths that Latino farmers have followed in transitioning to sustainable farm owners and the relevance of their masculine identity throughout the process, qualitative in-depth interviews, and participant observation will be used.  The interview will cover the participant’s immigration story, which will include the farmer's ties with family outside the United States, his/her relationship with agriculture before entering the country, and his/her position and power in decision-making during that time. The personal history will include the participant’s perceptions of what it meant to be a man/woman while growing up, with a focus on the experience before moving to the U.S. These questions are essential for this study to identify how different masculinities interact to generate privilege and harm. In this way, the interview will include his/her story of transition to the farm owner in the U.S to assess the difficulties that the participant faced in a context dominated by middle-aged white males. As part of the participatory observation tool, visits to the sales sites will be coordinated to get a better understanding of farmers' challenges and strategies to sell their products. Fieldnotes from the participant observation will include differences in gender roles at the farm and the market and the performance of traditional norms of sex by the study participant. Data from the participant observation will include the farmer’s interaction at the market with clients, market organizers, and other farmers. Fieldnotes will also include how the study participants promote and organize their products at the stand, how they communicate with the clients, the clients’ reactions and clients’ characteristics (race, age, ethnicity, facial expressions, body language) also how the farmer presents him/her-self to their clients (clothing, behavior, who is selling, who is moving product, who is managing the money). Fieldnotes from the farm will contain information about activities performed by sex, interactions regarding decision making, interactions with other men (power, physical strength, clothing), and embodied representations of masculinities.  

To address objective 4) provide sustainable agriculture organizations supporting Latino/a farmers in Pennsylvania, specifically Penn State Extension and PASA,  with evidence-based recommendations designed to support successful farming production to improve quality of life for Latino/a farmers in the sustainable agriculture sector, descriptive coding will be used to identify topics in the qualitative interviews that include information relevant to sustainable agriculture organizations to support Latino/a farmers.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Farmer and farm organizations will benefit most from this research; however, this study's findings will be shared through numerous outlets to reach a broad audience. Specifically, Penn State Extension through its Latinx Agricultural Network (LAN), and PASA have provided letters supporting this study.  

  1. Results from the in-depth interviews regarding Latino/a farmers' barriers to agricultural sustainability and maintaining their existing farms will be used to develop evidence-based recommendations for sustainable agriculture organizations to promote successful farming production and improve the quality of life for these farmers. Results and recommendations will include information concerning their aspirations to enter commercial markets for sustainable agriculture by scaling up and expanding their farm businesses in Pennsylvania. These findings will be compiled in a report for agricultural organizations to use internally and share through their networks. Penn State Extension and The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) have also expressed interest in this research. Penn State Extension, through its Latinx Agricultural Network (LAN), has been supportive of this study and provided a letter stating that this project is poised to help gather useful information about the experiences of Latino/a farmers in Pennsylvania. Penn State Latinx Agricultural Network (LAN) has provided its platforms and contacts in the Latino community to disseminate the findings of this study, this includes, hosting a web seminar and using their social and new media to disseminate the findings. In this sense, this study's recommendations can be relevant for the design of tailored educational programs for Latino/a farmers. The research report will also be distributed directly to research participants. The collaboration with Penn State Extension will include the presentation of the research findings, in Spanish and English, through PSU-Extension on-demand webinars program. The collaboration with PASA will include the presentation of the research findings during PASA 2024 conference. In 2021, Francisco Reyes has been involved in research and extension activities related to sustainable farming and the Latinx community in Pennsylvania. This year, he presented at the ‘PASA 2021 Virtual Sustainable Agriculture Conference’, during the Latinx Farming Community and Allies Networking Session. PASA has also provided a support letter for this research where it recognizes the relevance of this study to support their efforts toward sustainable agriculture in Pennsylvania.
  2. A zoom webinar will be organized to present the findings to more farmers and other interested institutions nationwide. This webinar will be organized through Penn State Extension and will be promoted through social media.
  3. Results will be presented at the Rural Sociological Society's annual meeting in 2023 (No date and location available at the moment) to evaluate the papers that will be submitted for publication.
  4. Finally, findings from this study will be submitted for publication in peer-reviewed journals (Rural Sociology, Agriculture Food, and Human Values).

Project Outcomes

Knowledge Gained:

During the year 2002, the activities of the research project focused on establishing contact with institutions and individuals that could be gatekeepers to find and access Latinx farmers in the state of Pennsylvania. Based on data from the 2017 agricultural census, it was determined that there is a concentration of Latinx farmers in the southeast of the state (see figure 1).


Figure 1: Hispanic/Latino farmers distribution in Pennsylvania.
Source: Own elaboration with data from USDA-NASS (2019).
Figure 1: Hispanic/Latino farmers distribution in Pennsylvania.


Between May and August 2002, the PI focused on scouting Harrisburg, Lancaster, York, and Chester Counties. A list of restaurants and stores that provide services and products to the Latino community was prepared based on online information. The following steps were followed during visits to each of the businesses on the list. Flyers in English and Spanish were posted on the stores' and restaurants' notifications boards. The posters covered general information promoting the research and inviting the population to be part of the interview (see figure 2). The owners of the premises were also consulted to obtain information on Latino producers who supplied them or other Latino businesses that should be visited. The Spanish American Civic Association, Casa, Tec Centro, and La Comunidad Hispana were also seen. 

Figure 2: Recruiting material in English and Spanish.

Figure 2: Recruiting material in English and Spanish.

Other efforts to contact Latinx farmers in Pennsylvania included the presentation of the research project to PA Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) members and using their listserver to present and promote the study and find possible participants. Also, the research was promoted through the Penn State Latinx Agricultural Network and advertised through their listserv. 

Despite various efforts to establish contact with Latinx farmers, it was not possible to establish interviews. In the case of two Latinx farmers in Chester County who initially agreed to be interviewed, they decided to decline the same day the interview was programmed.

Learned lessons

The difficulty of contacting farmers of Hispanic origin in the State of Pennsylvania can point to different reasons. First, language and literacy barriers and fear of working with the USDA or other governmental entities due to their immigration status can hinder their willingness to share their information. These barriers can make them a ‘hard-to-reach’ group, while only those with specific characteristics are more likely to participate. This leads to the second point; Latinx farmers in the census categorized as principal operators might also be farm managers, which might explain their concentration in localities like Chester county (known for mushroom farms) and where personnel with bilingual skills are desired. 

Nonetheless, in the State, several institutions and programs, including PASA, PSU Latinx Agricultural Network, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, have projects supporting new farmers and specifically supporting Latinx farmers in the region. 

Research Activities 2023

In 2023, the research concentrated on gathering data via in-depth interviews. These interviews involved various representatives from organizations that offer support services to Latinx Farmers in the Northeastern United States. The research yielded a comprehensive total of 31 interviews, segmented by location and organization type as follows: Massachusetts accounted for three interviews, Pennsylvania for 17, and Washington for one. Furthermore, there were two interviews with agriculture-focused NGOs having national-level representation (see Table 1). Participation in the data collection process also extended to various events, including the Spanish session of the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Conference in Hershey, PA. This provided an opportunity to establish contacts for expanding the pool of interviewees.

Table 1. Interviews distribution by state and organization type




Organizations Type



New York

Washington D.C


Agri-focused NGO






Land Grant Extension


















Preliminary Findings

Recognition of Latino Farmers

Most government entities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and Land Grant extension services categorize Latinos primarily within the farmworker segment. This classification influences the design and delivery of educational and support services, which are predominantly aimed at addressing the needs of farmworkers rather than farm owners. Such a perspective may inadvertently overlook the aspirations and potential of Latinos to own and operate farms, thus limiting the scope of support to immediate labor-related concerns rather than encompassing broader entrepreneurial and ownership opportunities.

Educational and Support Services

Educational initiatives are largely focused on imparting practical skills related to farm labor, such as crop management, pest control, and machinery operation. While these are undoubtedly valuable, there is a disparity in the provision of training that would empower Latinos to transition into farm ownership and management. Programs that do address farm management are less frequently offered and may not be as accessible to the Latino community, potentially due to language barriers, cultural nuances, or the lack of targeted outreach.

Grassroots Organizations' Role

The approach of grassroots organizations in Massachusetts and New York stands out as an exception to the general trend. By acknowledging Latinos not just as farmworkers but as current or aspiring farm owners, these organizations are pioneering a shift towards more inclusive and empowering models of support. Their efforts to provide education on production for sale and self-consumption reflect a deeper understanding of the diverse aspirations within the Latino farming community. This approach not only recognizes the entrepreneurial spirit among Latino farmers but also addresses a broader range of needs, from technical farming skills to business management and market access.

Implications for Policy and Practice

The preliminary analysis suggests a need for a more nuanced understanding and approach to supporting Latino farmers. There is a gap between the services offered and the potential needs and aspirations of the Latino farming community. Bridging this gap requires a shift in perception among service providers, from seeing Latinos solely as laborers to recognizing them as current and future farm owners and operators. This shift could lead to more comprehensive support services that include business planning, financial management, and market access, in addition to the technical farming skills already provided.

Furthermore, the success of grassroots organizations in engaging with Latino farmers on these terms highlights the importance of community-based approaches that are closely aligned with the needs, languages, and cultures of the populations they serve. Adopting such approaches more broadly could enhance the effectiveness of support services and contribute to the growth and sustainability of Latino-owned farming enterprises.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Based on the lessons learned from the search for participants, it is proposed to reformulate the research questions and direct the research toward Latinx farmer-serving institutions.  Thus, this research proposes to respond to the following questions: 

  1. What factors contribute to the success of development programs and projects directed to farmers of Hispanic/Latinx origin, what challenges have they faced, and what strategies have they followed to overcome those challenges?
  2. How do institutions supporting Latinx farmers frame their work, the Latino farmers they work with, and their needs? What are the consequences of these discourses?

With the changes in the research questions originating from the lessons learned, the flexibility to continue using these funds and to be able to change the focus of the study will be consulted with NESARE.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.