Faculty Spotlight

Sarah Lyon

Dr. Sarah Lyon of UK’s Anthropology Department, in collaboration with Dr. Tad Mutersbaugh of UK’s Geography Department, was recently awarded funding by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to continue research on fair trade, organic certified coffee production in Mexico and its influence on the social and economic livelihood of local farmers, specifically women farmers.  Dr. Lyon’s research has taken her to the highland coffee producing areas of Oaxaca, Mexico to survey coffee plots, interview farmers, and to observe and participate in activities related to coffee production, producer organizations, and community life.  From this research, the researchers hope to identify some of the barriers to women’s participation in agriculture with the goal of informing future policies and programs to promote gender equity and women’s access to productive resources. 

More than just a hill of beans:   Mexico is one of the top coffee producers in the world.  The majority of its organic coffee is produced by independent growers in the southern highlands, which includes Oaxaca. The terrain of this area is rugged and mountainous and provides little support for other agricultural products so the community is highly dependent on the coffee crop to support their families.  Most of the growers produce from small plots and are geographically isolated, making marketing of their products a challenge.  Loss of government support in the 1980’s and 1990’s left the indigenous people vulnerable to market volatility and predatory coffee brokers, further destabilizing the area economy.   In response to this, cooperatives (fair trade networks) developed to connect farmers to market resources.  This provided a level of independence for small farmers, enhanced the economic development of impoverished areas and reduced the exodus of the indigenous people to other locales in search of a sustainable livelihood.

A Cup of Jane: An interesting outcome of the advent of fair trade markets is the rapid rise of women-owned farms.  In the Mexico highlands, the number of women farmers participating in certified organic and fair trade coffee production has increased dramatically over the past 10 years and now women represent 40% of registered organic coffee farmers in the region. However, it is unclear if this growth has translated into greater access to agricultural resources, such as training and marketing support, to help them improve their yields and, presumably, their financial security.  There is also little information on how they are adjusting to and integrating into a traditionally male-dominated industry.  Are more women farmers engaged in the local governance and participating in economic decision-making? These are some of the key research questions that Dr. Lyon is investigating to identify barriers or challenges women farmers face. As she explains, "I've long been interested in the role that smallholder agricultural production can play in reducing poverty in the developing world. We know that women are much more likely to spend their cash income on household expenses, especially those that support their children's future. Therefore, increasing women's agricultural productivity and access to markets could significantly improve the outcomes for future generations."

Ground Truth: Dr. Lyon and her team have traversed the Oaxaca region engaging with the coffee community to gain understanding of the issues. The initial data suggest that women typically begin farming after a life changing event where they find themselves as sole provider for their household.  They enter the industry with few skills or resources to develop a successful and sustainable farming operation.  Women receive land as a family inheritance giving them the right to work it, but generally have less farming knowledge and access to labor assistance which results in lower crop yields.  Weaker social networks also limit their access to information on how to improve production and battle against diseases, such as the recent out-break of coffee rust, a fungal disease which results in leaf loss and leads to lower fruit (bean) yields and potential plant mortality.

Have women farmers found their voice? This question is still under investigation, but initial findings suggest that they lack visibility in governance.  Civic engagement is traditionally a male role so women have little experience in these interactions and there are few female leaders to guide the way.  Another obstacle to their involvement is the constraints on their time.  In addition to the farming operation, women typically manage the domestic responsibilities which limits their availability to become involved in leadership roles and seek additional training.

Pressing on: Over the summer, Dr. Lyon will be synthesizing the data and writing up the results.  Dr. Mutersbaugh will be collecting data for the second phase of the project which will study gender differences in farming practices and the goals and expectations of women farmers compared to their male counterparts. Understanding these drivers has important implications in the development and application of effective environmental policies.

If you would like to know more about Dr. Lyon’s research or teaching interests, please contact her via email at the address below.
Dr. Sarah Lyon, Associate Professor
Department of Anthropology
University of Kentucky
e-mail: sarah.lyon@uky.edu
Web: https://anthropology.as.uky.edu/users/smlyon3
Phone: (859)257-5038

© 2013 Tracy Farmer Institute for Sustainability and the Environment