Christa Evangelisto, PhD, Dallas, Texas (USA)
Christa Evangelisto (45) lives in a small town east of Dallas, Texas. As a Biology Department Chair and former Biology Instructor who is passionate about agriculture, she aims to conciliate the two fields of work she loves for a better, sustainable view on food production. An approach she puts into practice on her own small farm and aims to instil on the future generations in STEM and agriculture.
When Christa started her education, it was with the intent to become a veterinarian. She decided along the way that it was not the right path for her and redirected her focus on ecology and evolution. Today, she has an associate degree in animal science, a bachelor’s degree in agriculture, a master’s degree in biology and a PhD in education. “Animals are still a strong love of mine”, she says, “and that is why I have horses, chickens, goats and peacocks.” Christa has been involved in agriculture since high school, when she was in 4-H and the FFA in California. She has taught in agriculture school and has been an FFA advisor for a year. Today, she is a Biology Department Chair for Dallas College in Texas.
Conciliating agriculture and biology
“Some people find it odd that I have degrees in Agriculture and in Biology. However, agriculture is merely applied biology: you can’t have one without the other”, Christa explains. “I have always felt that to only understand one is to be only half educated”, she adds, explaining she also found that there is a lot of animosity between agriculturists and biologists who, from her point of view, both only see half the picture.
“My entire teaching career I have endeavoured to help people see that we need to understand biology to understand our world and our place in it. We need agriculture to continue to live in this world and feed, house, and clothe ourselves.” For Christa, agriculture and biology should be intertwined: we need to understand, practice respect for and protect our natural world, while providing for ourselves and our animal charges. A philosophy she puts into practice every day on her own farm, where she raises dairy goats: “I implemented a practice I was taught on how to clean, milk, and process the milk so that it would be safe to drink and use”, she explains. “I also provided milk to our microbiology courses at the college to test, and I gave them several samples that included some with poor handling. The result of their tests proved that the safe handling techniques I was using in the production of a food product made a big difference in the bacterial count of the raw milk. I also modified some of my technique to make my process more efficient without sacrificing the microbial safety. This kind of marriage between agriculture and biology is essential!”
Christa, who does not have an agricultural background, was always drawn to agriculture. “My ‘city’ family have no idea why I am so drawn to ag life, however, they have always tried to find ways to allow me to participate in agriculture: from letting me keep my 4-H lamb in the backyard in town – which didn’t last long – to driving me out to let me work cleaning house in exchange for riding lessons.”
Christa’s job as a Biology Department Chair has taught her a lot about sustainable agriculture and also a lot about the older, more ecologically harmful practices. To her, it is crucial to reconciliate the scientific and agricultural communities in order to move forward together and evolve towards producing food sustainably instead of working against each other. “The animosity of ecologists towards agriculturalists unfortunately shows up as very biased information in biology textbooks. I have done my best to research the claims and teach my students a more balanced version of what agriculturists do. People need agriculture to survive, it is not going away. So how can we make practices productive and sustainable at the same time? That is what we should be researching instead of one side bashing the other.”
STEM and agriculture: men’s jobs?
When asked about the perception of women in agriculture, Christa mentions that there is a difference between reality and perception. The perception in Texas is often that agriculture is a man’s job. “If you ask someone here to picture a farmer or rancher, they will picture a man 99% of the time. I find it funny the looks I get sometimes driving my big truck around hauling animals, or loading hay, or doing other farm chores. People seem to be almost surprised to see a woman doing this kind of work”, she laughs, adding that this perception is inaccurate in her experience.
“The vast majority of people I meet in agriculture, livestock production especially, are women. My experience is mostly with poultry, dairy goats and horses and the students that have come through my classes who profess a desire to enter the ag industry. Of those, I’d say that 70-90% are women.”
“I think the perception of the male farmer or rancher coming home to his wife at the end of the day is just a remnant of the origins of this area. Texans are not big on change (laughs)”. Christa believes that, as women continue to enter and thrive in agricultural pursuits, this perception will change. “But it is a slow process. The acceptance of women in agriculture is much more prevalent in areas that are more… liberal, for lack of a better word”, she adds, explaining that she noticed a big difference in perception between California, where she grew up, and Texas. “I don’t think Texans are against it, per se, they just don’t expect it.”
“The 70-90% of female student body entering science courses in pursuit of either agriculture or science careers dwindles to only about 20% graduating and working in STEM. That is a tragedy!
The same perception still lives in Christa’s line of work, she says. “Science is also still expected to be a man’s job. This is a problem in all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) areas and a topic of much research and funding to try to change. When I was working on research for my PhD dissertation, I read many articles on the problem of so few women and minorities present in the STEM fields and various attempts to mitigate the issue”, Christa, who tries her best to do her part by encouraging and supporting women in science through her job as a teacher, explains. “The 70-90% of female student body entering science courses in pursuit of either agriculture or science careers dwindles to only about 20% graduating and working in STEM. That is a tragedy! All those women who changed majors or dropped out completely are a huge loss.”
If the perception of agricultural or STEM careers being men’s jobs is still very present, Christa is surrounded by women in both fields. Their voices grow louder and they unite, give each other advice and support each other whenever they can, whether that is in real life or online. “One of the best things in agriculture is the comradery it instils. My closest friends are those I met because of the animals I raise. I have met women all over the country who I call friends, and I rely on them for advice and support. Moreover, there are several Facebook and text message groups where we can all come to get advice, make each other laugh, or commiserate about the highs and lows of our pursuits. I don’t think anyone in agriculture, biology or academics should be without a ‘crew’ they can rely on!”
Be the change you wish to be in the world
As mentioned earlier on in this article, Christa also owns a small farm where she raises poultry and dairy goats. “If I had the time and money, I would make it much larger. I’d love to have some longhorn cattle, maybe a llama or two, and a much larger dairy goat operation with a full dairy”. Thanks to her agricultural education, she can rely on her knowledge and experience with various production methods and tools from swine to beef and dairy cattle to poultry. “However, I am more interested in the homestead level of ag: providing for my family and sharing with a few others.”
Christa’s hope is to find ways to influence young people. Her own children will not take over the farm, but she hopes to educate the future generations and share her passion for agriculture with them. “I hoped my children would pursue agriculture and involved them in the care and upkeep of our small farm as much as possible. Unfortunately, it didn’t take. My son passed away, and my daughter is working on a degree in computer technology. My hope is that once I can get a little more settled I can find ways to influence other young people.”
“I would like to volunteer with FFA or 4-H in my area and help inspire the passion for agriculture that I have in future generations. I am truly an educator at heart and want to learn and then pass on all I can about the joys of living and working with the other living things around us!”
Christa’s experience is that the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. Her motto: “be the change you wish to see in the world”. “I think we should all be always learning, always open, always willing to listen. Understanding that we don’t know everything makes us more accepting and empathetic toward others when we disagree”, she concludes.
You can find Christa’s farm, Two Hearts Ranch, on Facebook.