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New Professor to Examine Multicultural, Gender Differences in Transfer of Ag Knowledge

PULLMAN, Wash. – People from different cultures share information differently. Jessica Goldberger, WSU assistant professor of community and rural sociology, witnessed that first hand while working with farmers in Kenya.

Jessica Goldberger in Kenya. Click image for a larger version.

Now, she hopes to expand what she learned in those rural villages by working with the burgeoning population of farmers of diverse backgrounds in Washington and the surrounding region. Goldberger, also a scientist in the WSU Agricultural Research Center, is one of just 11 WSU faculty members to receive a 2007 New Faculty Seed Grant to pursue her research.

“In Africa, I noticed networks that form among farmers,” she said. “A lot more peer learning and farmer-to-farmer training take place. It’s more about being creative and learning from each other than relying on an official source of information.”
A native of western Massachusetts, Goldberger grew up gardening. As an undergraduate she studied anthropology and agricultural development. She earned her master’s and doctoral degrees at University of Wisconsin-Madison in rural sociology.

Between her undergraduate and graduate programs, she worked with a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit called “The New Forests Project.” It was then she made her first trip to western Kenya to work with farmers interested in integrating food crops onto their land. Goldberger trained in organic farming practices at the Manor House Agriculture Center in Kitale there and “worked side by side with Kenyans,” she said.

As part of her doctoral work, Goldberger returned to Kenya to organize an organic farming training program for new residents flooding into the region to farm. The primary crops in the semi-arid, eastern portion of the country included maize, sorghum, millet and cowpeas.

Jessica Goldberger in Kenya. Click image for a larger version.

“I’m interested in small farmers who don’t have a lot of resources, but come up with innovative ways to use natural materials on the farm,” she said. That was definitely the case in Kenya. “These were resource poor farmers who really couldn’t afford agrochemicals and synthetic fertilizers. They had to rely on locally available, natural materials.”

And, she added, they relied on each other. “In a year and a half, some of them had become very accomplished organic farmers. They became resources for others, trusted leaders who would share information.”

What she experienced in Africa translates well into studying non-traditional farmers in the United States, Goldberger said.

“In Washington, there are a growing number of Hispanic farmers, Hmong farmers, women farmers,” she said. With her seed grant, Goldberger intends to survey all certified organic producers in the state – about 550 in all – for demographic data but also about how they access agricultural information. She wants to ask “attitudinal questions” about how they prefer to receive information and other issues.

“Anything I ask I want to analyze by gender and ethnicity,” Goldberger said. “The number of women and minorities going into farming is increasing; the percentage increase is significant. They are the new face of agriculture.”

In particular, Goldberger said she is interested in the role of women in developing and disseminating information about farming in different cultures.

“There has been a resurgence of interest in alternative agricultural practices, an emphasis on farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture and local agriculture,” Goldberger said. “Women, especially, are very interested and involved in those types of farming. Sustainable agriculture is network oriented, which very much fits the learning style that most women are drawn to.”

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