Conference Review: Latinos In Agriculture

My name is Karyssa Zavala, and I am a Latina Leader in Agriculture, born in Texas with roots in Mexico.

For three years now, I have been a member of Latinos in Agriculture, a community of Latino students, faculty, universities, governmental agencies, and agricultural companies convening annually to discuss and encourage the advanced study and careers for Latinos in agriculture and related fields. These member universities, governmental agencies, and agricultural companies graciously provide annual scholarships for enrolled undergraduate and graduate Latino students pursuing agriculture and related studies. In the past two years, student participants largely represented first-generation college students. Though not all students have agricultural backgrounds, for many including myself, at least one of our parents formerly worked as migrant laborers from countries such as Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil.

In (2014 & 2015), I received student scholarships to attend the Latinos in Agriculture Leaders Conference held in Grapevine, Texas. I provided insight among conference participants of my graduate program in International Agricultural Development, and my two prior HACU internships with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. The Hispanic Association of Colleges & Universities (HACU) National Internship Program is the largest U.S. federal internship program for students of Hispanic descent. Thus, I shared my experiences with the HACU application, selection, and placement processes with interested student participants.

In 2014 - Conference participants consisted of 34 colleges and universities, and 22 companies and organizations representative of 24 states in the U.S.

In 2015 - Conference participants consisted of 30 colleges and universities, and 70 professionals representative of 25 states in the U.S.

On October 28-30, 2016 – I co-led a presentation to high school students and their agricultural science teachers from across Texas involved in their local FFA (Future Farmers of America) Chapters. FFA is an intracurricular student organization for those interested in agriculture and leadership. For several of these students, it was their first time to take part in a professional conference, as well as the first time some students ever stepped foot outside their county lines. My co-presenters and I discussed with the high school students and teachers the diverse fields of study and careers in agriculture and life sciences.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has three emphasis areas: Management, Agribusiness and Industry, and Science and Technology. In the area of Science and Technology, I discussed how the career fields of Food Inspection and Food Technology enabled me to ensure Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) compliance guidelines were comprehensible for Hispanic production workers; representing more than half the workforce in U.S. beef slaughter establishments. And I explained how my Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Communications & Journalism prepared me for communicating agricultural information to the public.

In the area of Agribusiness and Industry, I discussed how the career field of International Trade Economics enabled me to assist the planning, implementing, and monitoring of food safety capacity building activities in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. I explained how my Master’s degree in International Agricultural Development prepared me for serving as an agricultural advisor in developing nations. Overall, my theme in my presentation was the correlation between food safety in both the U.S. and emerging markets in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. And it was motivating for me to see curiosities emerge among the students and teachers, and have both audience members asking receptive questions after the presentation.

Given this was the first year Latinos in Agriculture hosted high school students, it was meaningful to receive feedback from the students and teachers. That they felt welcomed and that they belonged in our community of Agriculture Leaders. In my opinion, high school is an imperative period to engage Latino students in intracurricular student organizations such as FFA, so as to develop leadership and engage in mentorship to complete their graduation and pursue a college degree. Latinos across varying levels of education lead our nation’s lowest numbers among student retention and graduation respectively. However, it was noted in the 2016 Latinos in Agriculture Leaders Conference that Latinos are currently the largest minority representation among U.S. college campuses.

The fact that my community has a measurable presence in higher education, is a momentous movement forward when we reflect on where our parents and grandparents started. The most memorable quote from this year’s conference was, “You can help an organization be more and do more by being a dual cultural individual.” It is no coincidence that the year Latinos are largely recognized among U.S. college campuses as the leading minority representation, that the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced more than $8.8 million in competitive funding to support Hispanic-Serving Institutions' (HSIs) agricultural science education programs.

Our governance acknowledges the imperative role education, especially an agricultural education, plays among the Latino community. And how the seeds our parents and grandparents planted within us, enable us third –and– fourth generations of Hispanic-Americans to shape the future of agriculture and largely humanity.

Karyssa Zavala