Meet Dr. Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern, Food Studies Assistant Professor
Updated: Feb 20, 2020
Dr. Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern seeks to explore the interactions between food and racial justice to create a more sustainable, equitable, and inclusive place for immigrant farmers.
Dr. Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern is an assistant professor at Syracuse University in New York, where she focuses on food studies and the former chair of the Geographies of Food and Agriculture Specialty Group of the Association of American Geographers. Her research and teaching explores the interactions between food and racial justice, and transnational environmental and agricultural policy. This work builds on her extensive experience with sustainable development and agricultural biodiversity projects abroad, combined with research on migrant health issues. One of her current projects focuses on the H-2A visa program for temporary agricultural workers. This program allows the US to hire foreign labor to fill labor positions currently filled by undocumented workers. Laura-Anne’s other new research area works on gardening and mental health of refugees based in Syracuse.
Upcoming Book Release!
Her forthcoming book The New American Farmer: Immigration, Race, and the Struggle for Sustainability will be available for order October 2019, as well as open access online through MIT Press. In the past ten years, Laura-Anne has been exploring the questions regarding immigrant farms in the US. She has researched in five different states trying to get a broad section of the US, where she interviewed immigrant farmers. Laura mainly focuses on people who were first generation immigrants who have been farm owners and farmworkers. Even though she has this book coming out, Dr. Minkoff-Zern explains this research is still in progress and is contacting organizations like the Small Farms program at Cornell University that are also helping immigrant farmworkers
transition to owning their farms.
“I think people are becoming more and more aware that this [immigrants owning farms] is happening, especially as we see a retiring generation of white farmers, or as the USDA calls them traditional farmers. I think they’re [immigrants] really needed and important group of people that are often overlooked. When we look at agriculture today, immigrants are not just workers, but their people who have a lot of knowledge in agriculture, are very skilled in agriculture, and they have more barriers to owning land and starting a business.”
Laura-Anne found her passion for sustainable agriculture during her undergraduate program
Laura-Anne started in a natural resources track but quickly discovered a strong interest in the relationship between people and the environment, particularly social justice. Now, you can study sustainable agriculture in several places but 20 years ago they did not exist. As an undergrad, Dr. Minkoff-Zern created a major where she chose classes that focused on the main theme of sustainable agriculture at Cornell University. She took classes from anthropology to international development and ended up doing undergraduate research in Guatemala. In this, abroad experience Laura-Anne became aware of indigenous knowledge systems and how they contrasted and related to industrial agriculture today. Laura-Anne’s exposure in Guatemala sparked a particular interest in permaculture and indigenous agricultural knowledge.
When Laura-Anne came back to the US, she was determined on learning about the agricultural system in the states and particularly the sustainable food system. Knowing that most of our food, even our organic food comes from California, she decided to work on an organic farm in California for about a year. She considered being a farmer, but she realized her unrealistic ideas about farming would get in the way of excelling.
“It’s really hard labor and takes a lot of technical knowledge, and I didn’t enjoy it. What I found was that I really enjoyed talking to the workers in the field, and I was able to connect the work I had done in Guatemala to my conversations with Mexican immigrants in California. So I became interested again in their knowledge, in people working in the field and what were they bringing beside just their labor.”
Subsequently, from this experience, Laura-Anne decided to do a Ph.D. in Geography at the University of California-Berkeley. She wanted to explore more of the knowledge of the workers in the California fields. Her project focused on food security of farmworkers, particularly within the indigenous farmworker community. Laura-Anne was researching how they were using their own agricultural knowledge to cope with food insecurity and her project connected indigenous knowledge with agricultural labor and immigration.
“What I found out is that many farmworkers are trying to start their own farms in California. That was something that people told me was impossible. ‘Farmworkers can’t start their own farm. Immigrants can’t start their own farm; it’s just too hard.’ I found that even in California, one of the hardest places to do it financially, people were doing it.”
Laura-Anne had her first daughter during her postdoc experience. Unfortunately, she wasn't in a supportive environment, and she had particular challenges commuting to work.
“Not being in a secure position and not having very much support from my colleagues was really disheartening. I went up a tenure track job at the time that I didn’t get, but it seems pretty related that I’d had a baby. There was probably discrimination, and in the end, it’s not a job I wanted.”
Laura-Anne describes the experience as a real wake up call, that even if you do everything right, you can still run into challenges that aren’t your fault. Nonetheless, Laura-Anne is very thankful for her current work environment and feels very lucky and privileged that she ended up at Syracuse University.
The tenure process is challenging but not impossible
Laura-Anne has just submitted her final paperwork for tenure! She explains there have been many challenges, particularly being a woman and having two children during the process. However, she feels grateful because she currently is in a very supportive academic environment and had decent maternity leave.
The most important things for Laura-Anne is staying consistent with her work and always making sure she has small attainable goals. Especially when she was pregnant with both of her daughters, she set up a work schedule and tried to stick with it. With Laura-Anne’s second daughter, she made a goal to get a book contract before she was born because she knew it would hold her accountable.
“Having children on the tenure track is messy, and I think I had to stay really organized. It has been really important is to stay incredibly organized with my schedule and make sure I keep a time set aside for myself to take care of myself. In a way, it depends on your personality, but I need to separate my work life and my home life, so I don’t work after hours and weekends. I have my time with my family, and I have my time where I work. I think that has been important to my success because when I’m working, I know that I am not worried about other things.”
Laura-Anne’s other advice is to not be a perfectionist, especially when you are in grad school. “A done dissertation it the best kind of dissertation. If you get an article draft done, don’t worry about it, just send it in and expect feedback.” She says from her own experience that there is always more reading and work to do, but you have to put your own constraints, so you don't burn yourself out. In the end, you will get more done.
Trust your own voice
“I think it takes time and experience to really believe in yourself, but the more you put yourself out there, the faster it’s going to happen. Especially for women, I think we’re just not socialized in the same way to trust that we have a voice in the room. Whether it’s a seminar or a conference, don't be afraid to share your work and to speak up and have your voice heard. Believe that you actually have a unique perspective and you understand things. Trust your own voice and that you are doing something important.”
Downtime is necessary for your mental well-being
Besides spending time with her family, Laura-Anne likes to run, bike, swim, and do yoga. She explains that it is necessary to take time to work out because with everything happening at work and in the world, it helps her mental health and motivation on track.
Including WOMEN in agricultural sciences is essential for progress
Laura-Anne explains that the perspective of women is highly important because women do an extensive amount of labor. In the undergraduate course, “Labor Across the Food Chain,”that Laura-Anne teaches, she realized that students know that women do most of the cooking, however, students don't know that globally women do most of the food production as well. Laura-Anne teaches that most farmers, especially small-scale farmers, are still women and women have the least power in decision making. Women do most of the work in agriculture, so having women in research and extension is really important to pay attention to those differences.
“It has to do with the fact that food affects all of us and if we are not having different perspectives on how we study and understand the food system, we are not going to make good decisions. It’s just a holistic perspective on a food system so whether that be consumption or access or food production people are slowly becoming aware that food is very racialized both in terms of production and consumption. We need women's perspectives to ask the right questions and find the right answers.”
Laura-Anne wants you to check out these great resources!
Food Chain Worker Alliance-Coalition of worker-based organizations whose members plant, harvest, process, pack, transport, prepare, serve, and sell food, organizing to improve wages and working conditions for all workers along the food chain.
Lideres Campesinas- Women Farmworker Leadership Network
Also, don't forget to check out Laura’s new book! The New American Farmer: Immigration, Race, and the Struggle for Sustainability
You can find Dr. Minkoff-Zern at: email@example.com
Thanks, Dr. Minkoff-Zern, for sharing your story with us! -WAGS TEAM
[Dr. Minkoff-Zern's interview was transcribed by WAGS co-founder: Marlia Bosques Martínez.]