- Author: Mike Hsu
When Laura Snell first came to the far northeastern corner of California, she was amazed to find that the Board of Supervisors in Modoc County – where cows outnumber people by a ratio of 13 to 1 – was composed almost entirely of women.
Snell, who arrived in the high desert town of Alturas in 2015 as the University of California Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor, said she now has a theory as to why.
“It's a great example of the rural and agricultural lifestyle we have here where women get involved in everything from civic organizations to local government,” she said. “In a lot of ways, there isn't a glass ceiling in an area where everyone is needed and most people are wearing multiple hats to keep the community going.”
Snell has worn the “county director” hat for UCCE in Modoc County since 2017, bringing a range of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources programs to local communities. In the subsequent years, she has established herself as one of the region's most prominent and respected voices.
“Laura is a strong leader, an excellent communicator, and extremely knowledgeable in the fields of wild horses, groundwater, livestock and grazing – among many other topics,” said Geri Byrne, vice chair of Modoc County's Board of Supervisors (which is presently 75% female).
Snell's broad base of knowledge – as well as her bachelor's in water science and master's in agronomy, both from the University of Nebraska – have served her well in her dream job in a “one-advisor” county.
“This is what I always wanted to do – know a little bit about a lot of things and be the person who connected people with what they needed, connecting them with information, connecting them with different experts,” Snell explained.
One of her most recent accomplishments is launching UC Master Food Preserver classes in Modoc County this year. About 130 people – in a county of 9,000 – have been served by this UC ANR program, and four are on the cusp of graduating as Modoc's inaugural class of certified Master Food Preservers. The vast majority of program participants, Snell notes, have been women.
“They're not only preserving for their own families; they're also using these tools and harvesting things from their gardens and then having a value-added product to sell at the farmers market and our local food hub,” said Snell, citing one participant who learned how to make and sell celery salt.
The contributions of women to the local economy, county leadership and organizations such as the Modoc County Cattlewomen's group continue to inspire Snell in her work – and in nurturing the next generation of leaders.
An avid participant in 4-H growing up in Story County, Iowa, Snell said one of the most fulfilling aspects of her job is mentoring the interns who come through her office, and presenting them with opportunities to learn and grow in their careers.
It was a personal connection that brought Snell to Modoc. A former Bureau of Land Management director in the county, who happened to be the father of her college friend, encouraged Snell to apply for the advisor position. So she flew from Nebraska to Reno and then made the three-hour drive north for the interview.
“I loved it; I immediately loved it,” Snell recalled. “I called my parents that night and said, ‘If they offer me this job, I'm staying.' This is it – this is what I've always really wanted to do, but not only that: this is the kind of community I've always wanted to live in.”
Snell – along with her canine companion, an Airedale-German Shepherd-Rottweiler mix named Zuri – have become an essential part of the fabric of Modoc County. She has provided guidance on everything from managing wild horses on the Devil's Garden Plateau to optimizing agritourism operations for greater profitability to improving the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers by alleviating regulatory burdens.
“Working in this county and for this county, for the people here, that's what fills my cup,” she said. “That's what is most satisfying about this work.”
And the county, in turn, has been appreciative of Snell's wide-ranging expertise and unflappable demeanor. According to Supervisor Byrne, Snell has been instrumental in taking on complex issues such as wild horses and the Big Valley Groundwater Sustainability Plan – four years in the making and greatly enhanced by Snell's background in water and her passion for bringing science to the people.
“Laura has a ready smile and manages to stay calm in the face of adversity,” Byrne said. “Modoc is very blessed to have such an articulate, knowledgeable, hard-working and personable director.”
- Author: Rachael Callahan
- Author: Cooper Limon
The COVID-19 pandemic hit farmers hard. Supply chains were disrupted and even non-traditional agritourism revenue streams such as hay mazes and on-farm events had to be canceled due to shelter-in-place mandates.
On the other hand, demand for local farm products skyrocketed, and thus many farmers and ranchers needed a quick pivot strategy and a set of new skills.
UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP) was well-positioned to support this shift toward direct sales, pulling in trusted community partners and experienced farmers and ranchers to put together a comprehensive webinar series, “Agritourism and Direct Sales: Best Practices in COVID Times and Beyond”.
Funded by a USDA Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP) grant, the webinar series is part of a three-year project, Strengthening California Local Food Networks with Agritourism and Direct Sales, which provides trainings and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers on how to diversify their revenue streams.
The strength of the series, which includes eight webinars that were recorded earlier this year and are available online, lies in the collaborations among the UC SAREP Agritourism Program, UCCE, community groups, and farmers and ranchers.
The series features a range of speakers, including representatives from community organizations, technical experts, academic researchers, and farmers – all coming together to build resilience and adaptability for small-farming operations and the agritourism industry across California during the pandemic and after.
“It's great to collaborate with other organizations and regions, to learn from each other and to broaden our networks, as we are all working to create more resilient and sustainable food systems,” said Carmen Snyder, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Trails, one of the nonprofit partners on this project.
And because of those strong partnerships, the webinar topics reflected the on-the-ground needs facing agricultural producers.
“COVID initially dramatically affected farmers' restaurant contracts, with many losing more than 80% of their accounts overnight,” Snyder said. “CSAs [Community Supported Agriculture], on the other hand, couldn't keep up with the demand, and all of our CSA members were full and had wait lists for the first time ever. Producers pivoted by creating more online stores, including pick-up and delivery options. It was a challenge for them to navigate the new technology and platforms.”
The “Online Sales Options and Methods” webinar, a partnership with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), provided an overview of several e-commerce marketing and online sales strategies that farmers can implement to diversify their revenue pathways and reach new customers. CAFF stressed the importance of farmers enhancing their resiliency through e-commerce.
The webinar also featured Ciara Shapiro, the owner of AM Ranch in Penn Valley, who shared her experience with online marketing and how it helped her and her husband survive the pandemic when the restaurants and farmers markets they sold to shut down. This personal and informative webinar demonstrated the effectiveness of online sales and marketing, while highlighting available resources from groups like CAFF.
The “Safe, Healthy and Successful Farm Stands” webinar was aimed at farms of all sizes and organizations that operate or advise agricultural operations using farm stands as a form of revenue. The webinar provided an outline of the rules and regulations that farm stand operators needed to follow during COVID – as well as during business-as-usual times.
Both farmers saw an increase in farm stand business during the pandemic, which Yagi attributed to the “traffic storm of people” who attended their annual plant sale fundraiser and came to participate in new farm outdoor activities and volunteer opportunities. Yagi also noted the growing number of low-income individuals who were unable to access fresh produce during the pandemic.
The speakers' shared experiences running successful farm stands gave audience members tangible examples and real-time information on how to incorporate farm stands into their businesses.
Carmen Snyder of Sonoma County Farm Trails, which helped circulate the recorded webinars to their network of farmers and ranchers, remarked: “These webinars were extremely helpful for local producers, to get clarity on best pandemic practices during these challenging times and to learn how other producers are adapting and navigating the circumstances.”
- Author: Olivia Henry, UC Davis graduate student intern
As California strives to recover from the pandemic-induced economic slump, Keith Taylor is taking an unconventional approach to economic development. In the world's sixth biggest economy, where do you start? Taylor, who was hired in 2017 as UC Cooperative Extension's sole specialist in community economic development, started by tackling a couple of the state's thorniest sectors: cannabis and utilities.
Participatory research in Mendocino County
In 2016, the passage of Prop. 64 legalizing recreational cannabis ushered in an era of both opportunity and headaches for Mendocino County growers. The county's permitting program has been the source of significant confusion and debate: Between 800 and 1,100 growers have received county permits, but many have not been able to obtain permanent state licenses because of a lack of clarity around the county process and compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act. The burden of uncertainty is one reason why only a fraction of Mendocino growers have pursued licenses, says Taylor, who is based in the Department of Human & Community Development at UC Davis.
While these regulatory battles play out, Taylor says better economic coordination between small growers could buffer them against large capital interests moving into cannabis. Virginia-based Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, is investing in cannabis and filing patents for cannabis-specific vaporizers. Individual legacy growers have the crop experience and market share, Taylor says, but don't have shared institutions through which they can exercise collective power — especially down the value chain in processing, distribution and consumer technology. Taylor believes that creating a small farmer-centric system will involve the creation of more interest groups, associations or cooperatives.
“For too long in agricultural and rural communities, we've encouraged people to do things alone,” Taylor said in an October 2020 presentation to the UC Davis Cannabis and Hemp Research Forums. However, if you look at parts of the world where rural economies do very well, they work together.”
With help from a Cannabis and Hemp Research Center grant, Taylor has been working on a wide-ranging participatory action research project in Mendocino County. Taylor's team — comprised of two faculty members, one post-doctoral researcher, and two student researchers — is producing research publications, policy recommendations and public events about ways that the emerging cannabis industry can support high-quality livelihoods and environments for county residents.
“The more we make folks aware of these good actors, the more likely we are to get challenges to the incumbents in terms of climate mitigation and economic developments,” Taylor said.
West Business Development Center, Economic Development & Financing Corporation and Mendocino County Supervisor John Haschak have been allies in the process so far. Haschak says Taylor brings valuable knowledge, resources and networks to bear on local challenges.
“There's a lot of opportunity for doing this whole new industry in a new way, and I think that's what Dr. Taylor sees too,” Haschak said. “There's a lot of potential here for structuring the industry along the lines of what our community values already are.”
As Taylor's team releases their findings, they intend to host forums at the Hopland Research and Extension Center to help the county harness the legal cannabis sector for economic impact.
Power to the people
Shortly after arriving at UC Davis from Illinois, Taylor published a book about the benefits of community ownership of wind energy in the Midwest. The turmoil surrounding California's largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, could have been ripped from the pages of his research. PG&E equipment has ignited half of California's most destructive fires since 2015, and experts pin much of the blame on the company's lack of investment in the grid.
In the months following the 2018 Camp Fire, which burned an area roughly the size of Chicago andkilled85 people, Taylor was one of the first advocates to propose converting PG&E into a user-owned nonprofit cooperative. This conversion would remove the extractive role of investors and give customers a voice in big-picture decisions about the company, Taylor wrote in an op-ed pushing the idea of customer ownership in The Mercury News in February 2019. By December, more than 100 elected officials across 10 counties endorsed the idea. The federal bankruptcy judge overseeing PG&E's case did not endorse the plan, although it's still possible for the state to take over the company under certain conditions. Other attempts to gain local control of PG&E's grid — including San Francisco's bid to buy the city's power lines from the company — also stalled.
Taylor isn't discouraged. He is working closely with the Golden State Power Cooperative, an association of the state's three community-owned electric utility co-ops, to push forward what he calls a “Rural Electrification Act for California broadband.” Taylor often references this New Deal-era law that gave federal loans to rural communities seeking to expand the electrical grid to their area. The act gave rise to the nation's more than 900 electric cooperatives today, including the three in California. With their help, Taylor sees opportunity in legislation or programs that would catalyze community-initiated, community-owned internet services. Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative is already bringing broadband to the rough terrain of its mountain customers.
“When you first set foot in California and are exposed to the giant that is PG&E and their influence over policy, you think that it's an obstacle that's too difficult to overcome,” Taylor said. He tries to elevate the visibility of people who are making inroads and recently featured Kevin Short in a webinar about community economic-development innovations.
Short is the general manager of Anza Electric Cooperative in California's high desert and current board president of the Golden State Power Cooperative. He said there are “tremendous opportunities” in the idea of growing cooperative broadband entities, especially with the attention on infrastructure at the state and federal levels. Short said the effort will take some creativity and willingness to depart from existing models: “The old saying among us here is if you've seen one co-op, you've seen one co-op, because it's going to be different everywhere you go.”
In both of these areas — cannabis and utilities — Taylor says his role is networker and facilitator. As the only economic development specialist at UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, he spends a lot of time researching and meeting people to understand where his efforts can be the most strategic. “In order to scale, I've got to go small, root and build and be comfortable with that process,” he said.
Small works for now, but Taylor remembers an associate dean telling him, “You've got a great job, now make it work for 40 million Californians.”
- Author: Pamela Kan-Rice
“We will start a conversation about prospects for new businesses after COVID-19, and entrepreneurial support for existing and new independent business startups,” said Taylor, who is organizing the series.
Webinars will be held on alternate Thursdays at 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. For details and to register for the free events, visit http://ucanr.edu/postpandemiceconomy.
May 20: Utilities of the 21st Century – Kevin Short, CEO of ANZA Electric Cooperative
June 3: Modo Co-operative: A Platform for Carsharing – Patrick Nangle, CEO of Modo Co-operative
June 17: Models of Affordable Workforce Housing – Mikaela Fenton, UC Davis Bradshaw Scholar
- Author: Ricardo Vela
Both women face many cultural and economic challenges to achieve their missions, and thanks to their tenacity, dedication and hard work, they have turned their goals into a reality.
Claudia P. Diaz Carrasco, a native of Atizapán de Zaragoza, State of México, has been part of UC ANR since 2015 as Youth Development advisor focusing on Latino and/or low‐income youth and families.
“When I joined ANR, there were really few people in the state and around the country doing work intentionally with Latino youth development and 4-H,” said Diaz-Carrasco.
Since joining 4-H, Diaz-Carrasco has been instrumental to increasing Latino participation in 4-H programs. She works in the Inland Empire, which includes Riverside and San Bernardino counties — two of the largest counties in California, with almost 5 million residents; 65% are Latino.[i]
“About 60% of school-aged youth in Riverside and San Bernardino are Hispanic/Latino,” said Diaz-Carrasco. “Since the beginning, the primary focus of my position has been to develop, implement, evaluate, strengthen and expand local 4-H programming to serve the current under-represented population better."
In an environment that is generally not friendly to changes and challenges, Diaz-Carrasco faces a daily array of obstacles to achieve her goal. Among them are high levels of poverty among the families she serves, high crime rates in some communities, and a lack of interest from the parents, who in most cases work two or three jobs to make ends meet.
“The success of my work as the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) advisor relies on how effective my extension team and I can be in sharing knowledge gained through research, education and program evaluation, and transferring it to the communities we serve in ways that are relevant for their day to day lives while embracing their cultural context,” said Diaz-Carrasco.
The knowledge that Diaz-Carrasco and her team bring directly to the youth, their families and communities in the Inland Empire creates positive changes and healthier lives.
“The way we educate the public matters, who are our educators matters. Science and culture are at the core of every program we have implemented since I started,” Diaz-Carrasco said.
Diaz-Carrasco gives three reasons why her work is penetrating the thick layers of the communities she serves. The first one is that she is an immigrant, like many of the families she works with day in and day out. “I approach my work, knowing that a lot of people are going or have gone through the same process I went through in 2014.”
She also cites thinking out of the box as another reason for her success. “I believe creativity and flexibility are at the core of any programs I develop.”
To exemplify this statement, Diaz-Carrasco and her team partnered with the Mexican Consulate in San Bernardino, where they held a successful summer camp and strengthened the partnership with the Consulate. Youth were able to participate in this unique program that aims to help them embrace their Mexican identity, even when in some cases they or their parents cannot travel outside the US.
The summer camp program was designed to increase positive ethnic identity, and to provide youth development reflecting the Latino and immigrant experience and the physiological and social effects of discrimination. The program also responded to economic poverty by assisting families with transportation, providing snacks and in some cases other items such as toothbrushes, water bottles or connecting families to health and food agencies. “Above all, we held the camp in a place that the families were already familiar with and felt safe, the consulate!” said Diaz-Carrasco. “We turned their art gallery, where official agreements are signed, into a playground. That's what I mean by out of the box.”
The interest in the program was visible from day one. In a matter of hours, 100% of the participants were reached. In the end, the parents expressed their gratitude for offering the programs in an accessible way.
Thinking out of the box has also allowed Diaz-Carrasco to partner with major companies in Southern California for the benefit of the youth.
In five years, Diaz-Carrasco has been able to increase 4-H membership in her area from 667 to 6,021. The overall percentage of Latino youth in 4-H went from 28% to 85%, and the number of volunteers grew from 175 to 354.
In the words of Sofia, a Moreno Valley student and one of the participants in the 4-H Juntos conference, “Juntos 4-H provides a home and a place where you can safely feel like it is your community. I hope expanding the program gives more students an identity as to what the community is like and that there are people who care for them and have someone to relate to and trust.”
In the heart of California's Central Valley, far from the busy streets of the Inland Empire, almost 100,000 ethnic Hmong call communities like Merced and Fresno home. This community has grown from 1,800 in April of 1982 to nearly 95,000 in 2019.[ii]
UC ANR has supported the Hmong communities in diverse areas, from farming to nutrition. For the past 34 years, Sua Vang, Community Health Education Specialist with the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), has been educating these communities on the value of healthy eating.
“In 1986, I first moved in from San Diego, and I was looking for a job. My husband happened to be a community aid specialist for low family aid,“ said Vang. “So the EFNEP program asked to have two nutrition educators for this position, he happened to be there, I happened to be looking for a job, and I got hired.”
Tens of thousands of Fresno County families have benefited from her nutrition lessons during three decades of bringing healthy habits to Hmong families. Vang has faced a lot of cultural problems while doing it.
“When we go to recruit for our nutrition program, the husband has to approve it and sometimes the husband does not give his support,” said Vang. “It doesn't matter if the wife would like to take the class.”
Cultural eating habits are also a big challenge, obstacles she has overcome with patience, tenacity and creative thinking. “People from Southeast Asia don't eat or drink milk a lot,” she said. “I introduce the almond milk and rice milk so that even if they have lactose intolerance, they can still have milk and calcium in their diet.”
Vang speaks four languages: Hmong, Lao, Thai and English. She has used different platforms to bring the nutrition programs to the Hmong communities, from churches to private homes to classrooms to airwaves. Vang stresses how challenging recruiting new participants to the nutrition classes has become through the years. The older generation of Hmong don't want to go out of their homes and the new generation, said Vang, are more interested in making money than living a healthy life. But she has a pitch for them. “I say to them, if you have a lot of money and your health is not doing well, you have diabetes, and you are dying out, who is going to spend that money?”
Considering that participants in Vang's nutrition classes are immigrants from countries where food safety and nutrition are not part of their daily eating habits, the impact of her classes within the Hmong community is impressive. 73% of participants have improved in one or more food safety practices. Eighty-nine percent have improved in other areas, like reading nutrition labels and ensuring children eat a healthy breakfast.
“Thanks to this career, I would say that I have helped a lot of people, and I am glad. I know my family, my children are doing good, they eat healthily and they are doing good," Vang said. “I make a lot of new friends. I am delighted knowing that I help them.”