Continuing conversations for Pride in Agriculture, leaders from the Beef Farmers of Ontario are sharing how other organizations can learn from their work on diversity, equity, and inclusion in agriculture.

In Part 1 of the conversation with BFO, Joe Dickenson and Jennifer Kyle described how learning and awareness were big first steps toward being more inclusive. The next steps begin to look at actions toward inclusion that we can take in agriculture and rural communities.

beef farmers of ontario diversity inclusion in agriculture

Why should we care about diversity and inclusion in agriculture?

“Sometimes in rural communities, it’s easy to say these are city issues that don’t apply to us,” responds Jennifer Kyle. “Particularly with LGBTQ who have never felt comfortable to be theirselves, it’s imperative for the sustainability of our communities and industry.”

“Other commodity groups have responded by saying it’s not our mandate to be diverse and inclusive. Unfortunately, that has to happen with human issues, and sometimes you have to pencil out the business case for some people to understand why.”

“If we’re alienating diverse people, that will hurt us. Once you’re able to get that message across, it can help the issue resonate with those who have difficulty understanding.”

What opportunities exist for greater inclusion in agriculture?

Being inclusive doesn’t always mean major changes or excluding others who are not part of diverse groups in our communities. Sometimes it means asking if you’re using the right methods to connect with diverse groups. Joe Dickenson, a beef cattle farmer, and director for BFO explains how changes in communication can help us to be more inclusive.

“Ontario is a bi-lingual province and all of our communication has been in English, even though there are large swaths that have large French-speaking rural communities. We’ve begun working to get more materials available in either language which helps us communicate more clearly with our French-speaking members.”

“Across Canada, there has been a renewed focus on improving our relations and inclusion of indigenous people. There are many times in Ontario where agriculture and our first nations really overlap and we’ve been trying to make more inroads with different first nations communities. It has been a challenge because each has to be worked with individually – they’re not homogenous groups.”

From a perspective of social media and communications, Jennifer explains how BFO is working to be more inclusive with consumer engagement.

“We’ve made an effort to ensure that when we work with influencers, partners, and brands on campaign strategies, we make a conscious effort to ensure that those who we work with are a diverse group. In 2021, over 50% of influencers we worked with were BIPOC and LGBTQ. The same goes for diverse and women-owned businesses.”

“This approach is imperative to make sure we’re connecting with different audiences at an authentic level. Working with different communities allows us to provide information and authentic recipes to people from different ethnicities – examples would include providing recipes authentic to our Asian communities near Toronto and Ukrainian foods for refugees currently entering the country.”

How do we ensure allyship isn’t self-serving?

“When we pitched the idea of making a statement in wake of George Floyd, we first identified that if we make a statement, it cannot be self-serving or one-and-done,” says Joe when reflecting back on the moments of June 2020. “So we ended up not making a statement immediately.”

“It took 7 months of reflection and learning to come up with our statement – that was step one. Next to address not being self-serving, was learning and getting the DEI training so that we can learn how to walk the walk.”

“Our DEI committee, which has become a full-time part of our board, has helped the organization on starting to build relationships and connections outside the stereotypical agriculture community. These relationships are important so that we can vet ideas before they go public and reduce the risk of being self-serving in our work.”

“We’re trying to meet people of diverse cultures where they need us to be – that’s the biggest thing. We’ve taken our time, started our training and verifying our work before it is published.”

Jennifer adds that, “we hope we get things right and understand there are times when we do and other times where we’ll have to start again. We’re still learning as we go and don’t pretend to have all the answers or get everything right all the time.”

joe dickenson
Joe Dickenson – Credit Erin Dent Photography

How can we approach organizations about diversity, equity, and inclusion in agriculture?

Joe cautioned that there will likely be natural pushback by agriculture organizations and leadership when approached about doing work on diversity, equity, and inclusion. In his experience, this comes from wanting to be conservative and not “rock the boat” with changes.

“When we brought this forward,” Joe recalls, “we had to recognize that as producers, even though we appear to be non-diverse, our industry is extremely diverse – processors, chefs, retailers, customers all bring diversity to the table. We want them to be proud of the product we produce and want to continue working with us.”

“Sometimes it takes a while to see any result or outcome – whether that’s people feeling included in your organization or customers recognizing your work. The question sometimes is not what is this going to cost us to do, but what will it cost us if we don’t have that support from the community? Will it will be more difficult for us to get things done – political, consumer good, or otherwise?”

As a staff person for the organization, Jennifer says she is thankful for her board members who have brought the issue forward and who have been willing to do the work.

“Be brave and rip off the band-aid to start the conversation with your organization. Starting small or big depends on the openness of your leadership. Without their buy-in, it will be hard. Organizations can consider pairing up with others who are doing training or learning to get started. Oftentimes, it’s important to just have a conversation with those who are doing the work.”

Joe adds an important response to a frequent complaint from those who disagree.

“We often hear that we should just follow the golden rule, that we don’t need DEI. They’re right, but the problem is that we DO need DEI because we aren’t practicing the golden rule. In some cases, that’s the simple response. How do we make it more comfortable when we aren’t doing that now?”

How do farmers continue working on diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Joes says that even though they have started, the organization is nowhere near done.

“The reality is that so long as there are people, we will need to continually assess where we stand, where we’re sitting, and where we need to be.”

“When we talk about DEI as an organization, it can be a scattered approach because we have to triage. We have to look at what area really needs focus right now. Then, which area needs it, but can that be tomorrow? But we can’t put it off forever.”

“I am proud of seeing the success and uptake when we’re reaching out to our consumers. I’m equally grateful to see the work in other agricultural organizations as they move forward or contemplate their own DEI training.”

“Many hands make light work. If we have multiple groups and organizations that are all learning at the same time, we can learn from one another and that takes some work off the shoulders and we can learn from them in other areas.”

Jennifer recognizes that “Ultimately we are going for a culture shift and that will take time and lots of work. Some days it feels like we’re herding cats, it feels like we’re not making progress some days, but on others you see good movement.”

“We’re taking an active look at our existing programs to ensure things are acceptable. For example, with our Annual General Meeting going forward, do we need to look at a hybrid model so people can have their voices heard at the meeting? In procurement, are we getting quotes from multiple companies to ensure we’re not just going with who we’ve always worked with? And at our office, we’ve made improvements for accessibility, like automatic doors to make it accessible to wheelchair users.”

“We are working on indigenous relations and how we approach these groups by participating in indigenous training and awareness education efforts and evaluating how we initiate those conversations. Now we look at working with each nation and how we connect on what is important to them. There are many great potential synergies – they are the original caretakers of the land.”

“People often ask if we have quotas to meet diversity goals. As a checkoff organization, it is difficult to implement quotas because we have a limited pool of people as a producer organization. To ensure we have diversity represented in our organization, we are reaching out to diverse groups during the application process and recruitment opportunities. This helps ensure we are asking the right people from the start instead of checking boxes.”

” We are working to ask the right questions. If someone doesn’t see themselves as part of a specific group if we were to have quotas, they may not engage with our opportunities. But if we reach out, including in our diverse communities, because an individual is highly qualified, we’re more likely to have diversity represented and engaged.”

“We are looking at how our board functions from a logistics perspective. Can we have a mixture of virtual and in-person meetings? That can open the door for younger families who can’t make the trip to every in-person meeting. It seems simple, but when you have something that’s very rooted in tradition and how things have always been, it takes some convincing and asking the right questions to try to do the right thing.”

An example for other organizations in agriculture

I’m highly encouraged by the example Beef Farmers of Ontario is setting for how our agricultural organizations can approach diversity, equity, and inclusion. And I hope others take initiative to apply this advice and take action in other groups across the industry.

A huge thanks to Joe and Jennifer for sharing their experiences in this conversation surrounding DEI.

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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