Speaker Series Panel Covers Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Agriculture

Updated: Apr 18


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE


Kansas City, Mo. (Nov. 12) -- Agriculture lags behind many other industries on diversity, but the sector can make strides to improve, especially if more young people receive exposure to agricultural programs and career support, according to a panel of experts participating in Farm Journal Foundation’s Speaker Series.


Minorities are significantly underrepresented in agricultural schools and in the workforce, and while more women have been receiving agricultural degrees, this has not translated into leadership positions in agricultural schools, professional societies, industry, or government, said Dr. Olga Bolden-Tiller, national president of Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences (MANRRS) and head of the Department of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (DAES) at Tuskegee University.


Dr. Bolden-Tiller, who recently joined Farm Journal Foundation’s board of directors, was the keynote speaker and moderator at the Nov. 12 event, titled In My Shoes: Diversity in Agriculture and Nutrition. The event, which marked the Foundation’s first-ever in-person Speaker Series panel, was held at the Agriculture Future of America (AFA) Leaders Conference. The event took place in Kansas City, homeland of the Osage, Kaw/Kansa, Ocheti Sakowin, and Kickapoo nations.


“Workplace diversity has yielded significant value to society as a whole, and an emphasis on greater inclusion in agriculture will result in a stronger, more creative, and innovative industry as we move forward,” Dr. Bolden-Tiller said.

Speakers on the panel included Kelsey Ducheneaux-Scott, director of programs at the Intertribal Agriculture Council and a Farm Journal Foundation Farmer Ambassador from South Dakota; Ebony Webber, chief operations officer at MANRRS; Dr. Grant Ermis, board member of Cultivating Change Foundation and director of the California Agricultural Teachers' Induction Program (CATIP); and Aaron Smith, an AFA alum and member of the 2020 Student Advisory Team. The event aimed to open up conversations on diversity, representation, and intersectionality in many forms, including race, ethnicity, sex, gender, religion, cultural identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic backgrounds, and much more.


Underrepresented groups face a number of barriers to developing successful careers in agriculture, Dr. Bolden-Tiller said. This starts at a young age, as many minority students, especially in urban areas, don’t have access to agricultural education programs in elementary or high school, so students don’t have exposure to agriculture as a potential career. A lack of role models in the industry, culturally insensitive atmospheres, and negative historical connotations associated with agriculture also prevent minorities from entering the field and lead to low levels of retention.


To solve these problems, the agricultural sector needs to become more “domestically global” – embracing cultural differences within our own country and intentionally creating spaces of belonging for all people, Dr. Bolden-Tiller said. Specifically, the industry can take a number of steps to address barriers to diversity, including providing resources for programs that allow minorities to gain exposure, training, and education in agriculture; offering internships to students with decent pay, housing, and transportation; offering degree and experience-level appropriate career opportunities; and creating pathways to employment and leadership skills.


“I just think about how many students have been lost to other industries over the years because they didn’t have a role model or someone who could talk to them about what an agriculture career is,” Ebony Webber, chief operations officer at MANRRS, said on the panel. “Getting students excited and interested in agriculture is going to be key for moving the industry forward.”

Providing technical assistance and increasing access to resources for historically underserved populations, which is a focus of the Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC), is vitally important for improving diversity, equity, and inclusion in agriculture, said Kelsey Ducheneaux-Scott, director of programs at the IAC and a Farm Journal Foundation Farmer Ambassador. Creating systemic change will require disrupting the status quo, she said.


“We need to consider that perhaps it is time for the status quo to be disturbed, and we as leaders in this space get to help bring that – and what a dynamic, resilient, biodiverse system we’re going to be building as part of that disturbance,” Ducheneaux-Scott said. “There should be an appreciation of the diversity that is present, and we want to invite that diversity into higher levels of leadership in the agriculture sector.”

Diversity goes beyond what is easily seen – people have hidden aspects, such as their sexuality, religious affiliation, socioeconomic backgrounds, that contribute to their identities, said Dr. Grant Ermis, board member of the Cultivating Change Foundation.


“We don’t want to enter into any experience with assumptions, because there are biases you can’t see,” Dr. Ermis said. “We have to consider how different factors of identity integrate into who you are as an agriculturalist.”

The generation of young people now entering the workforce has an opportunity to drive changes and increase diversity in agriculture for future generations, said Aaron Smith, a recent college graduate, AFA alum, and member of AFA’s 2020 Student Advisory Team.


“As we enter our job roles and our generation becomes the powerhouse in charge, we can shape the course of agriculture,” Smith said. “It seems like the age of people working in agriculture keeps going up and up, but our time is coming. As we get into the field, we can create a space that is structured for people who aren’t involved in agriculture to become involved in agriculture, and make agriculture more inclusive for everyone.”