A man, a woman, and a child working standing inside and organic green house
By UNM College of Population Health, Organic Farmers Study, Francisco Soto Mas, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

UNM Researchers Lead National Study on Organic Farmers

Agricultural producers are considered essential workers, as they are critical to food availability and access. This was even more evident during the recent COVID pandemic. While food production and consumption suffered with the first wave of infections, later data showed an increase in demand for local products. This was also true for organic products, and sales experienced significant growth in 2020 and 2021. Data also shows that organic food products are available in practically every conventional grocery store. Now, researchers at The University of New Mexico’s College of Population Health (COPH) are taking the lead on a national study into this essential workforce.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) describes organic agriculture “as the application of a set of cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. These include maintaining or enhancing soil and water quality; conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife; and avoiding use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering.

The market for organically grown food continues to grow. According to the USDA, there are about 28,400 certified organic operations in the US, and the number of organic farms, organic acreage, and the value of organic products sold are all increasing. Although not officially certified, many farmers across the country also follow traditional agricultural practices that do not involve synthetic chemicals. This growth in organic food production is driven by demand. Most households purchase some organics, and organic products are available in nearly 3 out of 4 conventional grocery stores. Despite the increased interest in organic products and the role this essential workforce plays in food production, little is known about the organic farmer.

Researchers with UNM COPH are conducting a unique study with organic farmers and contributing new and important data on this population. The Organic Farmer Study is funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Southwest Center for Agricultural Health, Injury Prevention, and Education at the University of Texas at Tyler Health Sciences Center.


Headshot Francisco Soto Mas
The study is unique because there is very little information on this essential workforce. We are generating data that typify the organic producer and can potentially inform research, practice, policy, and allocation of resources at multiple levels.
Francisco Soto Mas, MD, PhD, MPH, UNM College of Population Health

“The study is unique because there is very little information on this essential workforce. We are generating data that typify the organic producer and can potentially inform research, practice, policy, and allocation of resources at multiple levels,” says Francisco Soto Mas, MD, PhD, MPH, who leads an interdisciplinary team of researchers in occupational health, agronomy/sustainable agriculture, public health, and social sciences from UNM, New Mexico State University, and University of Texas

The Organic Farmer Study first explored the impact of the COVID pandemic on the organic producer and the farming community. It estimated prevalence of COVID infection; challenges farmers confronted with preventive measures; delays they experienced in health care access and services; vaccination status and intentions; and how the pandemic affected their families, farms, and businesses. This information is essential for medicine and health care, public health, and emergency preparedness. These results have already been reported and published in national and international scientific journals.


The second phase of the study is more comprehensive and can make an even more significant impact. Because the study is supported by NIOSH, the leading U.S. agency in occupational safety and health, the focus is on injury and illness.

However, the study is informed by a multidimensional conceptual framework that includes not only the worksite but also external contextual and social factors that contribute to work-related safety and to the overall health of the farmer. For example, it is measuring safety practices, injury rate, and health status. This is a significant contribution because national occupational surveillance systems do not collect or report this data. But the study is also looking at the mental, social, intellectual, and spiritual health of the farmer, and how these may affect safety, injury, and health and well-being.

“We are excited with the results that we are obtaining and the contributions we are making,” says Soto Mas. The Organic Farmer Study has opened a new line of research in the COPH and UNM Health Sciences that has tremendous potential for future research and funding. More importantly, the study is contributing to support a more sustainable form of farming and an agricultural practice that promotes land preservation and environmental conservation, contributes to food availability and access, creates economic opportunities for community members, strengthens social networks, and increases community resilience. This is population health. 

For more information on the Organic Farmer Study, please visit APEL website.

Categories: College of Population Health, Research, Top Stories