Sowing seeds of tolerance in the agriculture industry

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According to the U.S. Department of Labor, seven out of 10 agricultural workers were born outside of the U.S.
USDA photo by Bob Nichols

An inclusive workplace environment means everything in a world that grows smaller every day. The U.S. agriculture industry, dominated by migrant workers from all over the globe, is a particularly diverse work setting. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, seven out of 10 agricultural workers were born outside of the U.S., making agriculture one of the most ethnically diverse trades in our nation.

That’s why Dr. Noa Roman-Muniz, associate professor in the department of animal sciences and the extension dairy specialist at Colorado State University (CSU), has devoted her career to developing cultural sensitivity in the agriculture industry.

Roman-Muniz attributes her interest in her current field of work to the science and agriculture she was raised around. Roman-Muniz grew up in Aguada, Puerto Rico; her mother is a retired microbiologist who worked for the Veteran’s Administration in Puerto Rico and her father, also retired, bought a dairy when Roman-Muniz was young. Her interest in the animals she grew up around bloomed into a passion for agriculture.

“It became a hobby,” she says. “You know, you’re 9 years old and you like getting close to the cows and horses, and I think that combination of microbiology and seeing the animals and working with the animals made me get very interested in veterinary medicine.”

After completing her undergraduate degree in pre-veterinary medicine at the University of Puerto Rico, Roman-Muniz went on to study veterinary medicine at the University of Wisconsin. Realizing she wanted further training in her field, she moved to Colorado and completed an internship in internal medicine and surgery at CSU. During this internship, she noticed a disconnect between the mostly Caucasian management and the Hispanic laborers at the dairy farms they visited.

“To me it was a little puzzling that people in charge of taking care of our animals, in charge of producing food, that there was a communication gap between management and the guys who were actually taking care of the animals,” she says.

Dr. Roman-Muniz brings multicultural awareness to the Colorado agriculture industry. Courtesy of CSU
Dr. Roman-Muniz brings multicultural awareness to the Colorado agriculture industry.

Although being bilingual helped Roman-Muniz to bridge this gap, she saw the problem was more than just a language barrier — it was a cultural one.

Following the internship, she completed a master’s degree in clinical sciences with an emphasis in adult education, specifically how to facilitate educational interventions with a multicultural audience. She went on to work at the veterinary hospital at CSU where she designed and facilitated training sessions for agricultural workers, emphasizing not only linguistic but also cultural sensitivity issues to create a more equitable work environment. To her, the issue resonates on multiple levels.

“If you have a healthy and happy workforce,” she says, “you’re going to have animals that are well taken care of, and so you have healthy agriculture.”

The concept of inclusivity is a persistent issue in the agriculture field today, especially considering the volume of migrant workers employed by the industry. According to the National Center for Farmworker Health, 3 million agriculture laborers are migrant workers. Nations in Latin America, where many of these workers come from, cannot all be lumped into one general cultural category; each have distinct customs, unique dialects and a diverse wealth of cultural practices.

Roman-Muniz believes issues of generalization and insensitivity extend beyond the workplace.

“When we generalize, we perpetuate these biases that are dividing our country,” she says.

When the extension dairy specialist position at CSU opened up in 2008, she crossed from the realm of veterinary medicine into animal sciences. But her concern for multicultural sensitivity remained steadfast. She continues to be a figurehead for cultural inclusivity in agriculture, and she will speak as part of the Perspectives on Labor panel at the Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture on Feb. 18 in Denver.

Her seminar will address the current downward trend of available agriculture workers, and how to retain productive employees in the industry. Part of her focus is on improving management and the relationships between employers and employees.

Roman-Muniz believes a good manager needs to get to know their workers, regardless of cultural differences. Camaraderie is crucial to the health of any working environment.

“It’s that concept of health that goes beyond your physical health,” Roman-Muniz says. “It’s mental. It’s emotional. It’s the health of the community.

“We just want everybody to be seen, to be heard and to be healthy.”