Opinion: Embracing diversity can only benefit farming

Recently, a row erupted after Farmers Weekly advertised a webinar on the future of farming with an exclusively male panel.

Emily Norton, head of rural research at Savills, called them out on Twitter, describing the panel as “male, pale and stale”, and her tweet quickly gained more than 1,000 likes.

It was a touch harsh. I’m reliably informed that three industry-leading women were invited on to the panel, but couldn’t make it.

See also: What is the future of farming post Covid and post Brexit?

Knowing three of the male panelists, and having heard a fourth speak at a conference, I can testify they aren’t in any way stale and are great advocates for our industry.

But there’s no getting away from the fact they are all white men.

Excellent contribution

Contributors to Twitter were quick to point out that there is no shortage of highly-qualified women who could have made an excellent contribution to the discussion. But true diversity goes further than gender balance on panels.

We can’t deny that, despite the strides made in recent years, agriculture is still not a very diverse industry. It is still dominated by white, older men. And while more women are now thankfully in leadership roles (Jane King at AHDB, Minette Batters at the NFU to name just a couple), they are still in a minority.

Search for women or men from BAME backgrounds in leadership positions in agriculture, and they are even fewer and further between. Adding more women to panels doesn’t automatically solve the problem – it’s a start, but being a woman alone doesn’t mean you represent diverse experiences.

For example, I may be a younger woman from a non-farming background, but I am still privileged. I went to private school, have a university degree, and benefited from a family loan when setting up my business.

Lack of diversity

In many ways, my experiences in life are not that different from those of the white men I grew up surrounded by. I recently participated in the annual Women in Dairy conference online.

As always, it was a wonderful celebration of some amazing women in our industry across a spectrum of ages, but I’d wager that the number of women from more diverse backgrounds was low.

This isn’t a criticism, as we have to start somewhere and there are multiple reasons for the lack of diversity in farming.

But now, more than ever, we need to make changes and welcome more people from all backgrounds into our industry at all levels, feeding through from agricultural education and entry-level jobs, right through to business ownership and leadership roles.

The nation that we feed is diverse and we must understand our customers and engage with them to shape the future of food production. 

With the farm support soon due to be paid directly from the national purse, and agricultural policy focusing on public goods, we must have a much closer relationship with the public if we are to win their support.

Co-ordinated approach

We need a co-ordinated approach to increase diversity in agriculture, which includes Young Farmers Clubs, careers advice in schools, agricultural colleges and universities, training scholarships for new entrants and people from BAME backgrounds.

Increasing diversity is vital to future-proofing our industry, bringing in new ideas and approaches, and finding innovative solutions to problems. If we keep tapping into the same small pool of knowledge and experience, we will always get the same answers.

As individuals, if we get out of our comfort zone and engage with people from a more diverse range of backgrounds, the whole industry will benefit.

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