(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on how farm organizations are attempting to diversify their work force and how Black farmers and their organizations view some of the challenges.)

As the deputy secretary of agriculture, Krysta Harden was in a unique position to encourage more diversity in agricultural organizations. She knew many farmer leaders personally and they trusted her insights.

At the 2014 Commodity Classic, she delivered a fairly strong message in a private session, telling the almost all-white male audience of farmer leaders that they needed to encourage more diversity in their membership and leadership.

“It was basically a message that, if you want your organization to have a bright future, you need to be more diverse,” recalls Ray Gaesser, the American Soybean Association president at the time.

Gaesser told Agri-Pulse he believes having more diverse sets of views and opinions is good for agriculture but also notes the obvious: ASA’s board, composed of members nominated by the states, is composed of white males with two exceptions: Steph Essick from Iowa and Pam Snelson from Oklahoma.

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The soybean association is certainly not alone with its lack of diversity in its leadership ranks.

The majority of U.S. farm organizations have elected white males to lead their organizations, with a few exceptions: Jo Ann Smith was elected to lead the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in 1985, followed by Jennifer Houston in 2019. Judy Olson was elected president of the National Association of Wheat Growers in 1994. Nicole Berg, the NAWG VP this year, is on track to be the second female president of NAWG next year. The United Soybean Board elected Vanessa Kummer as chair in 2011 and the National Corn Growers Association elected Pam Johnson in 2012.

At the commodity and trade association staff level, more women and minorities have been hired for leadership positions in the last decade. A look across staff directories finds a few white female CEOs and several women who serve in top positions such as chief of staff or the head of government relations.

Within the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, 13 of the 54 commissioners or secretaries of agriculture are female and six are non-white.

Despite progress on gender diversity, why isn’t agriculture looking more racially diverse? And what should be done about it? The answers are as complicated as the sometimes controversial and emotional dialogues surrounding race relations in the U.S.

Some industry leaders told us that they grew up not knowing any Black, Latino or Asian individuals in their respective geographies. Others said they have tried to recruit a more diverse set of employees and sometimes failed.

“Like many who are engaged in agriculture here in America, I am from a small rural town and really didn’t travel that much while growing up,” noted an Agri-Pulse subscriber who responded to our request for perspectives on this topic. “Our world is formed by those we interact with and for most of us, that is an Anglo-based group of friends and neighbors. While this isn’t bad or wrong it also doesn’t give us the perfect perspective on everything.”

Some groups told Agri-Pulse that they offered jobs to Black college graduates, only to be turned down because of the location of the job.

Yet now, perhaps more than any previous time in their history, agricultural interests are doing a bit more soul searching. In the wake of George Floyd’s death in May and numerous protests that followed, there is a renewed effort by food and agriculture organizations to enact meaningful change and address the questions of race head on.

Reactions to George Floyd’s death prompted statements from several agricultural organizations, including the National Farmers Union, the American Farm Bureau Federation, The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, the National Black Growers Council, the National Young Farmers Coalition, the Farm Credit Council and many others.

“If we stand idly by while our friends and neighbors suffer — as too many of us have done for too long — we are complicit in their suffering. Now is the time to step up, to heal these wounds, to build a just and equal society,” NFU President Rob Larew said in his organization’s statement.

However, Larew said in an interview that, “while statements like these, about racial injustice and the need for diversity and inclusion, can help, the challenge that any organization has is, how do we live that policy?

“A lot of what we need right now is not trying to figure out what the answer is but talk to the folks whose experience this has been,” he said. His organization, which had its first Black voting delegate in 1920, featured an all-Black panel, focused on Black land loss and retention, USDA programs and other issues during its 2020 annual convention. The session was moderated by Karis Gutter, who leads government and industry affairs for Corteva Agriscience.

“There is a reason why ag businesses push as hard as they do to build as diverse and as strong of a workforce as possible, because the opportunities in agribusiness are so strong. We need that same kind of logic and focus also on the farm sector itself,” Larew emphasized.

Wisconsin Farmers Union hosted a training program earlier this year to help members better understand systemic racism and to better understand the experiences of one person versus another. Larew says it’s an effort he’d love to see more of.

“Real change is going to mean more uncomfortable conversations, more listening and more willingness to consider ideas and approaches that we haven't considered before,” he said. “We know that what we've done before, up until this point, hasn’t been successful.”

Jon Doggett, CEO of the National Corn Growers Association, agrees that more needs to be done to “narrow this gulf between white, Christian and rural people and urban, suburban people of different colors and religion.” Even before Floyd was killed, he reached out to Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee for a conversation about her upbringing and how they might find common ground with farmers on issues like race. The NCGA’s St. Louis headquarters is located about 30 miles from her East St. Louis office.

Doggett says after the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s going to bring corn growers to Joyner-Kersey's JJK center, which among many other things promotes food and nutrition security by teaching urban farming to children. He also hopes to invite inner city kids out to NCGA member farms.

“We need to find ways to have the conversation and build relationships when everyone has a common language,” Doggett said. “And farmers love to have conversations. It won’t be perfect, but we are going to work on it.”

He said he has been making headway on the diversity front with his own staff by hiring more female staff members and would love to have more diverse candidates apply for jobs. “It really bothers me that, out of 60 employees, we have no person of color.” He said he’s committed to doing better with recruitment.

The Farm Credit Council and its members have been trying to support programs and build relationships with Black growers and Black students for many years, in hopes of improving their recruitment efforts. “It’s a big priority for us,” said Van Hoose, the group’s CEO.

Earlier this year, Farm Credit took the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Challenge, committing to create strategic partnerships with the nation’s 99 HBCUs and acknowledging that they produce “top minority talent” that are “part of your diversity and inclusion efforts.”

“We traveled around on the Hill with them, talking about the needs of those schools and talking about how agriculture intersects there. We are trying to build more connections between individual Farm Credit institutions and individual HBCUs,” said Van Hoose. “What they really want is to develop pipelines of potential hires, and even potential customers — if folks are going into production agriculture. Of course, that’s what we want, too.”

Van Hoose told Agri-Pulse the Council this fall will announce a “living stipend program” to support living expenses and encourage more interns in the farm credit institutions from HBCUs.

This “HBCU Launching Leaders Program” is operating as a pilot program this summer.

Farm Credit is also working with a group at the University of Arkansas to analyze the U.S. Census data on production agriculture to put together a more accurate picture of where minorities are located, what their operations look like and what their needs are going to be in the future. As a result, Van Hoose said they hope to identify whether or not there are “things we can do in terms of outreach or are there needs that we could potentially build a program around.” For now, the 2017 Census map shows the strongest concentration of Black farmers in southern states.

Wyant is president and founder of Agri-Pulse Communications Inc. For more news, go to www.Agri-Pulse.com.