Studying for her dual-title doctoral degree in rural sociology and in international agriculture and development at Penn State, Paige Castellanos learned about the plight of families living in western Honduras, where many eke out a living in an economy marked by high poverty rates and subsistence agriculture.
Especially troubled by injustices faced by women and children — and wanting to move beyond textbook lessons — Castellanos made her first trip to the Central America region in 2010.
"Despite their circumstances of low income, challenges affording education, and difficulty accessing safe and nutritious food, the people are resilient, positive and willing to work hard for a better future," she said. "They just need the right resources to lift them up."
Now an assistant research professor in the Office of International Programs in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, Castellanos is among an interdisciplinary team of researchers dedicated to elevating Hondurans — especially women — by teaching them how to diversify their farm operations to improve family diet and income, while advancing gender equality.
The Women in Agriculture Network (WAgN): Honduras project is a five-year initiative aimed at addressing food insecurity and gender inequality in Honduras. The project is supported by the USAID Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Horticulture, at the University of California, Davis.
In addition to Castellanos, the Penn State team includes principal investigator Janelle Larson, associate professor of agricultural economics; Leif Jensen, distinguished professor of rural sociology and demography; Carolyn Sachs, professor emeritus of rural sociology and women, gender and sexuality studies; and Elsa Sanchez, professor of horticulture.
Collaborating with them are researchers from Zamorano University in Honduras, including Arie Sanders, associate professor of agribusiness management, and Hazel Velasco and Alfredo Reyes, research associates and Farmer Field School instructors.
As Castellanos and Larson explained, western Honduras is among the poorest regions in the Western Hemisphere. Rural areas are particularly hard hit, with one out of five Hondurans living on less than the U.S. equivalent of $1.90 per day. Not surprisingly, most families struggle to put food on the table. Those who are food secure experience very low dietary diversity, meaning they are eating only two or three food groups, which are primarily beans and tortillas. The result — one fourth of children suffer from chronic malnutrition.
Women, and subsequently their children, often fare the worst, according to Larson. She noted that the patriarchal mindset that prevails in many parts of Honduras — intensified by isolation and low levels of education — have rendered women voiceless, especially in making decisions about farm operations, income and accessing resources.
To address these problems, the researchers worked with Asociación de Mujeres Intibucanas Renovadas, a nongovernment group that promotes gender equality in Honduras, to establish a Farmer Field School program in the rural communities of Candelaria and Malguara.
The program, held from January until May of this year, taught 65 farmers — one group of women and another a mix of men and women — how to grow nutritious crops such as broccoli and sweet potatoes. Participants received hands-on instruction, showing them how to construct a 10-meter-by-10-meter home farm plot, with organic production, low-pressure irrigation and integrated pest management techniques.
Transportation, childcare and meals were provided to reduce the burden of participation. Castellanos highlighted the importance of participatory instruction methods and "the incredible hard work and dedication by Velasco and Reyes to ensure active engagement of all participants."
An important component focused on the issue of gender differences within a household, with co-ed workshops that illustrated how women's empowerment can benefit the entire family. Even when sharing technical knowledge about fruit and vegetable production, the curriculum was adapted to include gender content.
"The topics of gender are discussed with the goal of reflection, imparting an understanding that both women and men should have their needs, interests and opinions taken into account," Larson said. "Considering that when men and women can have the same opportunities and available resources, the community overall will achieve a better quality of life."
Castellanos said the instructors were impressed with the participants' willingness to engage, their dedication to learning and their openness to discuss challenging topics around gender, such as gender roles, the division of household responsibilities, and personal self-esteem.
One experience that she found particularly powerful happened during one of the leadership lessons. Placed into groups, the participants' task was to draw a picture of what a leader looks like. One group drew a woman wearing brightly colored clothing and a patterned headscarf, reflective of their culture. When asked about the drawing, Castellanos recalled, a group member responded, "A leader looks like one of us, because we can all be leaders."
The Farmers Field School culminated with what Castellanos described as a "very poignant" graduation ceremony, attended by leadership and faculty from both Zamorano University and Penn State. Each participant was called on stage to receive a certificate of completion.
"For most of the participants, this was the only time they have been recognized in this way," she said. "When we went to their houses only a day or two later, many already had their certificates hanging on their walls and talked about how important it was for them to complete the program."
Researchers will monitor the graduates' progress and evaluate the effectiveness of the program, concerning both horticultural production and women's status. From that examination, a model of training will be developed that can be used in communities facing similar barriers, Larson said.
The Farmer Field School is one of several ongoing initiatives under the umbrella of the Women in Agriculture Network: Honduras project and is part of the college's broader Gender in Agriculture, Energy and Environment Initiative. Other projects include an internship program for Zamorano undergraduate students, an extensive household survey, and the development of a graduate-level certificate program in gender, agriculture and the environment.