(Editor’s note: This is the second 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.)

Several years ago, Farm Credit partnered with Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences, a non-profit devoted to “foster and promote the agricultural sciences and related fields in a positive manner among ethnic minorities.”

“We’ve been longtime partners and we’re talking to them about how we can enhance that partnership,” said Todd Van Hoose, CEO of the Farm Credit Council. Other sponsors of MANRRS programs include a who’s who of leading agribusinesses: Land O’Lakes, Bayer, John Deere, BASF, Cargill, Elanco, Merck, Syngenta, Corteva, FMC, Valent and Hormel Foods. USDA’s APHIS, NRCS, ARS and the Forest Service are also sponsors.

In a normal year with no pandemic, the organization hosts leadership institutes, a diversity summit, student competitions and an annual meeting and career fair for college students. The group has over 2,000 members in 38 states, not including their high school program (Junior MANRRS) that they are in the process of building, says Ebony Webber, chief operations officer for MANRRS.

She’s heard from several farm and agribusiness leaders about the challenges they have in recruiting diverse candidates and suggests part of the problem is that companies only look at places where they are used to hiring, mainly major land grant universities.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

“How are you focused on recruiting diverse candidates if you aren’t going to the historical Black colleges and universities, and other minority serving institutions?” she asks.

Another problem for recruiters is that a lot of these students don’t come from a traditional ag background, so “their experience may look a lot different. You may not be able to connect with them in the same way as you can with a student who grew up on a dairy farm, because it’s not valued as such,” she said.

Asked if she’s seen a great deal of progress with hiring diverse candidates over her 17 years with MANRRS, Webber said, “yes and no.”

“There has been progress, but in terms of diversity, it has been largely white women who have benefited. We are seeing progress on gender diversity, which is great. But you’re still not seeing the racial diversity. I’m not seeing women of color obtain those same positions.

“Incidents that have happened over the last two months have put the spotlight on the elephant in the room, which is racial diversity,” Webber said. “That's the most uncomfortable one to address, and the one least talked about when I walk into a lot of companies. I think a lot of people hide behind the term diversity, because they don't want to call out specifically the areas they're looking to hire.”

“I know diversity does mean something different to every organization, but I believe companies are afraid to call out specifically what diversity means to them, and they hide behind this in blanket terms.

“Honestly, I feel like this is why there hasn’t been any progress. There hasn't been any real open dialogue, and this is the first time I feel the focus to address racial inequities will be sustained. I'm hopeful there will be more conversations like you and I are having.”

Webber said that human resources staff in major agricultural companies are now saying they are going to have a “real dialogue” on racial diversity and are pledging to do better. Still, she wishes it would have been more of a proactive effort.

“When it’s a knee-jerk reaction, it kind of makes me feel like I have to hurry up and jump on it because if too much time passes, it’s not going to matter again. People will go back to being comfortable and complacent.”

Webber said she tells her partners that this isn’t an “eight to five type of thing. This is a true case of, you can't fake it ‘til you make it. This is either about who you or who you are not. Diversity, inclusion and equity are all about accepting people for who they are.”

Some Black farmers say that they are open to working with their white counterparts in farm organizations and agribusinesses, but need to develop a new level of trust after suffering so much discrimination at the hands of USDA and others in the past.

“The discrimination process that Black farmers went through decades ago didn't only affect that generation. It was genocide for the future generations, because no one wanted to go into the same struggles and walk in the same footsteps,” said Philip J. Haynie III, chairman of the National Black Growers Council, who farms in Virginia and Arkansas.

In 2017, the United States had 48,697 producers who identified as Black, either alone or in combination with another race, according to USDA’s NASS. They accounted for 1.4% of the country’s 3.4 million producers, and they lived and farmed primarily in southern and mid-Atlantic states.

Growing up and helping his dad farm in Virginia, Haynie was eager to find other Black farmers who could share their experiences with him. He says relationships formed in the NBGC made that possible.

Haynie says he’s been in more conversations with companies this year about how to be more inclusive in agriculture than ever before. He tells Agri-Pulse there are several things most agribusinesses could do differently to try to have relationships with Black growers.

“They have to be willing to convey to growers they are sincere. They’ve got to put their money where their mouth is and invest in some diversity training for their own employees,” he said.

Haynie recalls a NGBC meeting at Monsanto headquarters in 2008 when then-CEO Hugh Grant asked Black growers assembled in the room if they were taking advantage of their 0% seed financing programs. A Black grower who farmed 8,000 acres in Texas said he didn’t know such a program existed and was borrowing a couple of million dollars, paying interest at the bank instead. Grant was livid, Haynie recalls.

That’s one example of the economic disparities that haunts many Black farmers, Haynie said.

“In order to overcome these barriers we must find methods to deliver information to all farmers and ranchers equally. Companies must be socially responsible and ensure their inclusion and diversity protocols are implemented on a corporate level and throughout the wholesale and retail networks that represent them,” he added.

“A lot of companies have programs that are supposed to come down from the top, but it ends up only the white neighbors learn about them,” Haynie said. “That’s the economic disparity that still haunts many Black farmers. That’s the knee on our neck.”

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