As part of the Pride in Agriculture series, it is important to feature organizations that are doing the work to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion for all people in agriculture and rural communities. Beef Farmers of Ontario is one organization actively demonstrating how to create more inclusive spaces for everyone and work toward greater DEI in Agriculture.

In this first of a two-part feature, we explore how Beef Farmers of Ontario identified a need to address DEI in their organization and outline action steps to help them improve. In part two, I share a conversation with BFO leaders to learn what the organization has done to address DEI and how other organizations can learn from their examples to apply this to other associations and businesses in the industry.

beef farmers of Ontario DEI in agriculture
Image: Beef Farmers of Ontario

Seeing a need for DEI in Agriculture

In the summer of 2020, our society experienced significant social unrest and, as a result, significantly raised awareness of the need for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion. While many voices in agriculture and rural communities chided the conversations as unnecessary or actively encouraged racism and discrimination, some leaders in our communities chose to take action for what is right.

While leaders of some agriculture organizations chose to ignore calls for improved DEI efforts, the Beef Farmers of Ontario took action and led by example to address diversity, equity, and inclusion in their organization. BFO has become a great example of how we can take action to address inequities in our industry and work to create more inclusive communities for everyone we work with.

Our Role in Improving DEI in Agriculture

“We recognize the beef sector is not always a diverse industry, particularly at the farmer and association level. Further along our supply chain, however, there is a great amount of diversity among the people dedicated to ensuring our product makes it to the tables of consumers. Likewise, our consumers are another integral and incredibly diverse group from all walks of life. We feel it is important to be a voice, build bridges, listen, learn, and support all members of our community.” – Beef Farmers of Ontario

BFO has transparently outlined why and how they view their role in improving Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in their organization, and the greater Ontario beef community. Acknowledging DEI is a continually evolving conversation and effort to obtain a culture shift within the industry.

To demonstrate their commitment to future action, BFO outlined several steps their taking for development.

  • BFO is committed to listening and learning and speaking up against prejudice and discriminatory language, behaviour and actions.
  • BFO is committed to increased understanding of how policies and programs related to agriculture affect Indigenous peoples. We commit to working with these groups on contentious issues such as allowing agriculture use on Crown land.
  • BFO is committed to advocating for more diversity, equity and inclusion in agriculture.
  • BFO is committed to education within our industry, including educating our membership on racism and other prejudice as well as promoting diversity and allyship.
  • BFO is committed to ensuring our actions are not just self-serving, including promoting and using BIPOC-owned businesses, as well as developing more diverse and authentic recipes that appeal to and celebrate our diverse communities.
  • BFO is committed to working in collaboration with other groups and individuals who are more knowledgeable than us on fighting discrimination.
  • BFO is committed to evolving our commitments as we learn.
beef farmers of ontario dei in agriculture

Learning about DEI in Agriculture

“The easiest part of our diversity approach has been releasing the statement. The hard part is making that statement work and living up to it,” says Joe Dickenson, a beef cattle farmer and director with BFO who helped lead the DEI initiative for the organization.

“As much as there is concern about being one of the first, we’ve had so much support, whether from the board when we pitched the idea or from our membership and the larger Ontario beef community. We weren’t 100% sure how it was going to be taken, but having support from the top makes life much easier to get the ball rolling.”

Dickenson recognizes there is a lot of work to be done but says it was important to BFO leaders that they start from the basics by learning about the issues at hand.

Jennifer Kyle, Manager of Public Engagement & Digital Strategy for BFO, explains how the organization approached learning about DEI issues by seeking help from a third-party organization.

“We worked with a company called Bloom to complete a comprehensive 8-week DEI learning experience. This wasn’t a one-and-done training. Instead, their approach is to teach you these things so that you’ll latch on and keep learning as part of a journey.”

“The first couple of sessions covered the foundations of what DEI really means and what it looks like in practice. They gave us a glossary of terms, which to this day is the most helpful thing I have received throughout all of it because there are so many acronyms and abbreviations, and terms to know and understand.”

“Starting with the back-to-basics approach was super helpful. I felt better after those first few sessions just knowing how to refer to different folks, learning what the abbreviations mean and what all the words that go with the letters mean. It seems super basic, but we didn’t feel good setting out with any action plan without understanding who we were trying to be allies for and what challenges they face so that we could go about trying to break down some of those barriers.”

“The training was an excellent first move for the group. There were some who were hesitant about it in the beginning – it was not mandatory – and we had pushback when they saw what the curriculum was – concerned about this being ok, but not that. After the first orientation session, I got texts from people excited about the program once they understood what we would be doing. Everyone who started the 8-week program finished as part of the group.”

Addressing Skepticism on DEI in Agriculture

“If we represent all Ontario beef farmers, we have to provide a home for all Ontario beef farmers,” is Joe’s response when asked how the organization responded to those who were skeptical of the need to address diversity, equity, and inclusion in their agriculture communities.

“That doesn’t mean a board member has to endorse the lifestyle of another member, but they do have to let them exist as themselves and make them feel comfortable. Our biggest push has been that we want our members and people within our industry to be comfortable being their authentic selves and be able to participate at a full level.”

“If we have members who are comfortable enough being in the organization and involved, but still not comfortable being fully out with who they are, there will be others who will be hesitant to step up in the first place. They may have some amazing ideas and input and we’re missing out on it. For the number of people that we have in this industry at the producer level – it’s a small number and we can’t afford to lose those voices.”

Jennifer adds, “It’s a two-way street. There’s making a comfortable safe space for all of our members and there is the education and awareness on the part of everyone else. You can be in a group making comments and may not even realize when statements are offensive and making someone uncomfortable. That person may slowly stop participating in the organization and we’ll wonder where they went.”

“You may not have made those statements with an intent to hurt, so it is important to be aware of how others may perceive what we say and do.”

What resonated most while learning about DEI?

“Halfway through the learning sessions, someone who has been an advisory council member for some time joined one of our sessions with a pride flag in the background,” explains Jennifer. “None of us knew he was part of the LGBTQ community – it was never something he let people in the beef industry know even though he has been out and visible with his family and friends.”

Joe adds, “When he had the courage and felt comfortable enough with the broader group to put up that flag, it showed other members around the table that it’s not just someone from Toronto that we’re talking about. It very well could be their neighbor or their friend.”

“This small action of visibility drove home diversity a little more. One of the bigger lessons – there is diversity within the industry already but we’re not seeing it because people are not comfortable being themselves. We don’t always realize who’s in the room and being impacted by the conversations.”

“We hear about some awful things happening to people in the LGBTQ community,” adds Jenn, “especially in rural areas where they are not welcomed for whatever reason. What gets me – I had a conversation with someone I know who is openly out and was raised on a beef farm. When he was old enough to decide his path, he chose to leave because he felt like those were not his people and he didn’t belong.”

“Of all the work we’re trying to do, we’re trying to drive home, no matter where you come from or who you identify as, we want everyone to feel comfortable as part of our industry.”

Actions Toward Inclusion in Agriculture

Part 2 of this feature will explore how leaders of the Beef Farmers of Ontario organization are taking active steps to be more inclusive of everyone in their communities.

The Pride in Agriculture series highlights voices from LGBTQ+ people and allies in agriculture to feature the diversity and leadership within our industry who work to make our community a better place for everyone. To have your LGBTQ+ or Ally story featured, contact Ryan Goodman here.

Consider making a contribution this month to the Cultivating Change Foundation, whose mission is to value and elevate LGBTQ+ agriculturists through advocacy, education, and community.

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