UCCE small farms advisor strives to make farming more inclusive and equitable

UCCE small farms advisor strives to make farming more inclusive and equitable

This is one of a series of stories featuring a sampling of UC ANR academics whose work exemplifies the public value UC ANR brings to California.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted life for everyone, with information about COVID-19 changing daily. For Californians who aren't fluent in English, obtaining reliable information is particularly difficult. Aparna Gazula, a University of California Cooperative Extension advisor who serves Santa Clara, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties, has been providing COVID-19-related information in Chinese and Spanish for immigrant Bay Area farmers.

In March, when restaurants shut down to curb the spread of the virus, many restaurants and wholesale produce markets cancelled produce orders placed with farmers. Language, cultural differences, low computer literacy and limited access to computers created barriers for small-scale, immigrant farmers in the Bay Area to quickly find new buyers for their perishable produce. Gazula introduced them to food banks, hoping they would accept the produce donations, but the food banks were not set up to pick up donations from small farmers.

Most small-scale farmers lack the financial capital to absorb the revenue shock. To help offset losses from unsold specialty crops, the UCCE advisor and Qi Zhou, the small farm program assistant specialist, have been helping Asian and Latino farmers complete English-language disaster aid applications.

“Since March, we have helped farmers apply for Covid-19-related farmer relief funds,” Gazula said. So far, she said, four of the 17 immigrant farmers who applied to the American Farmland Trust Farmer Relief Fund have received a total of $4,000, and 10 farmers of the 30 who applied to the California Family Farmer Emergency Fund received a total of $42,500.

Recently the U.S. Department of Agriculture expanded the list of specialty crops eligible for its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program to include bok choy, daikon and other vegetables with a deadline of Sept. 11. Communicating by phone and the app We Chat, Gazula and Zhou, who speaks Mandarin, notified local farmers, and advised them how to apply for the disaster funds. Zhou, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service rangeland management specialist Ling He and another NRCS staff member assisted 64 farmers in completing applications over the past week.

Bob Kuang, president of the Bay Area Chinese Growers Association, shares UCCE information with the association's growers.

“Most of my members don't understand English so they [UC Cooperative Extension] help, like for policy and safety,” Kuang said, "providing information the growers can't find elsewhere in Chinese.”

When she was a girl, Gazula saw how hard farmers work to make a living off the land while spending summers and winter breaks at her grandparents' farm in India, where they grew rice, mung beans and chili peppers.

“Farmers are very hardworking people, and small farmers even more so as they manage everything on the farm,” said the small farms and specialty crops advisor. “Their grit, determination to succeed and hardworking spirit truly inspire me.”

“I'd like to help them be successful as much as I can,” she said, “be it research-based information to farm successfully or bilingual support to help them better navigate regulations or apply for grant funds.” 

In addition to helping farmers apply for financial relief, Gazula alerted the farmers to shelter in place rules and is delivering COVID-19 safety information about masks, sanitation and social distancing requirements in Chinese and Spanish to them. 

“We also helped farmers implement COVID-19-related protocols on their farms,” she said. “We are currently putting together 200 COVID-19 kits that will help farmers comply with worker health and safety-related protocols on their farms. The COVID-19 kits contain reusable masks, hand sanitizer, bilingual Cal OSHA guidelines for employers regarding COVID-19, and a resources sheet listing where to buy the enclosed items.”

When she's not involved in COVID-19 crisis communications, Gazula continues to conduct research on nitrogen uptake in bok choy and bell peppers and irrigation management. She collaborates with Linda Chu, Guo Ping Yuan, Han Qiang Kuang and other Santa Clara County growers who allow the farm advisor to study crops on their farms.

“They do research, like test irrigation systems for right amount of water for the crop and nutrition – fertilizer – for the crop. They do lot of things,” said Kuang, of the Bay Area Chinese Growers Association, who provides land at his farm in Gilroy for UCCE studies.

Gazula also advises farmers on how to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) on their farms and fulfill irrigated land nitrogen reporting. Fines for not complying with regulations can threaten the economic sustainability of small family farms.

Although the majority of growers she works with regularly have limited English and need assistance filing reports to the government, others consult her for production information they can't get elsewhere for the specialty crops they grow. Farmers of Korean, Japanese, Indian and Vietnamese ancestry and others attend meetings to learn the latest research on Asian vegetables such as daikon radish, napa cabbage, bok choy, on choy and various Asian leafy mustard crops including gai choy and pea shoots.

Gazula, who joined UC Cooperative Extension in 2016, currently works with about 180 small-scale growers in San Benito and Santa Clara counties and hopes to expand her outreach to farmers in Santa Cruz County. 

To help small farmers adapt to climate change, Gazula and Zhou partnered with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' Healthy Soils Program staff and Santa Clara County Farm Bureau for technical assistance and held workshops during the winter. Zhou helped the farmers apply for grants from the California Department of Food and Agriculture's State Water Efficiency & Enhancement Program and Healthy Soils Program. The 22 farmers who received CDFA grants brought a total of $424,111 into Santa Clara County.

The outreach work UC Cooperative Extension does wouldn't be possible without the help of bilingual staff such as Zhou, the scientist Gazula hired with grant funds in September, and some translation support from partner organizations and growers as well. 

“Relying on partners for translation support isn't practical,” Gazula explained. “Outreach is most effective when it is targeted. It's not just literally translating words, but translating the information the words convey. Because we provide outreach materials to comply with regulations, the language in these materials is very technical and it's important that the information is presented accurately. We also depend on relationships with the farmers to extend the information within their communities. Long-term, it's easier to do outreach with support from our own staff.” 

Competition is stiff for money to serve non-English-speaking Californians because the state is home to so many immigrants with different needs. The majority of the grants she uses for outreach are for food safety. The local Open Space Authority, which promotes preserving land for open spaces, has also provided funds for small and beginning farmer outreach and education.

Gazula draws on the expertise of fellow UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors across the state. For example, she said, Richard Smith, who specializes in vegetable production, and Michael Cahn, who specializes in irrigation and water resources, are always willing to help, even though they are not assigned to serve Santa Clara County.

“Farmers already have tremendous challenges when it comes to being successful,” Gazula said. “I feel language barriers and lack of access to the same resources as fluent English-speaking growers shouldn't be the reason they can't farm successfully.”




By Pamela Kan-Rice
Author - Assistant Director, News and Information Outreach