Elsa Sanchez, a commercial vegetable crops specialist, wanted to serve underrepresented farmers in Pennsylvania — now she has the opportunity to reach and impact minority farmers across the country.
Sanchez, a professor of horticultural systems management in the Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, was appointed in July to serve in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Advisory Committee on Minority Farmers.
“It was really exciting to receive the news,” Sanchez said. “I have learned so much about the obstacles minority farmers face and the solutions we can bring. It’s been so cool.”
The Federal Advisory Committee for minority farmers is a group that works to serve underrepresented farmers to ensure they get equal access to USDA programs.
The committee consists of 15 members, including representatives for socially disadvantaged farmers, nonprofit organizations, civil rights organizations and higher education institutions.
After research is gathered, the representatives put forward their research and suggestions to the United States Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue.
Since Congress approved the committee in 2008, the group has worked to advise the secretary and USDA on the implementation of Section 2501 Program of the Food, Agriculture, Conservation and the Trade Act of 1990 — which is a 5-year comprehensive farm bill on agricultural and food programs.
The committee holds public meetings to discuss and deliver recommendations to Perdue on what services will better maximize minority participation in USDA programs and services.
According to Sanchez, the committee looks at the barriers posed on minority farmers and assesses how to remove them.
Currently, members are in the stage of gathering information and will meet later to discuss ways to best address obstacles, such as gaining access to USDA programs and services.
Sanchez will serve in this position for a two-year term.
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To be considered for the position, farmers can nominate themselves or be nominated by a friend or colleague. Sanchez said her colleague nominated her.
“After the process of applying, you wait and cross your fingers and hope for the best,” Sanchez said. “It's one of those things where the opportunity presented itself, and when I was made aware of it, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity.”
According to Erin Connolly, a professor and head of Penn State’s Department of Plant Sciences, Sanchez is well fit for the job.
“Dr. Sanchez is a very bright, thoughtful, creative, hard-working and caring member of our faculty,” Connolly said. “She is one of our most highly regarded teachers.”
Sanchez was a recipient of the 2018 Community of Teaching Excellence Award, Connolly said.
Additionally, Sanchez conducts research on both conventional and organic vegetable production and leads a “high-impact” extension program in the area that directly supports 4,000 vegetable farms across Pennsylvania, according to Connolly.
Sanchez received her Bachelor of Science in horticulture and Master of Science in agricultural biology at New Mexico State University in 1994 and 1996, respectively.
She then went on to earn a Ph.D. in horticulture at Washington State University in 2001.
Sanchez’s footwork focuses on working and connecting with the Latino community in Pennsylvania through Penn State Extension — a research-based educational organization that aims to give advice to the community on gardening, farming, food, health and community development.
Extension at Penn State is a way for researchers to connect with clientele. Sanchez works with Latino farmers in Pennsylvania who are confronted with barriers, she said.
“Extension is neat because it is research based and takes out the bias,” Sanchez said. “Being connected to Extension is valuable, but people aren’t always aware of what it offers.”
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At the very beginning of her term, Sanchez could see how big of an impact she has working with the federal government, she said.
“Here in State College, I have an impact on Pennsylvania farmers, but now going to a national level, it’s just amazing,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez has led USDA funded projects to help support minority farmers and has a history of outreach to the Latino community, according to Connolly.
Sanchez also is one of the founding members of Penn State’s Latinx agricultural network, Connolly said.
“Since [Sanchez’s] arrival at Penn State, [she] has worked tirelessly to improve the lives of others through her research, teaching, extension and service,” Connolly said. “She is an exceptional faculty member and role model for our students.”
According to Carolee Bull, the department head of plant pathology and environmental microbiology, Sanchez is an “outstanding” researcher.
Sanchez and Bull both work with the leadership team of the Latino agricultural network where they seek to engage and support Pennsylvania’s Latino agricultural community.
“We work to make sure Latinx stakeholders get as much of the resources they should be getting,” Bull said.
According to Bull, Sanchez has advanced land science and has helped growers in Pennsylvania.
“Sanchez has been a leader in Penn State agriculture for as long as she has been in the state,” Bull said. “Her experience with Latin growers will serve this committee and the wealth of experience she has is a great service to the nation.”