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It’s still very early days, but agriculture is on its way to becoming a more diverse and inclusive sector

More than ever, becoming inclusive is both a moral responsibility and a business imperative in Canadian agriculture.

Canadian agriculture has a problem and needs to talk about it.

Partly, it’s a human resource issue. Every year, Canada’s farms and agricultural businesses fall further behind. More and more traditional farm jobs go unfilled while, at the same time, new job descriptions are being created that demand even harder-to-find skills and vision. And it isn’t just on the farm. Farm groups, boards and ag businesses of every variety have to be on permanent lookout for smart, skilled people to staff and manage them. 

But it also a question of culture. The sector has definitely made progress. It has expanded the demographic it typically draws from. Yet it still sorely lags among population groups like women, Indigenous people, immigrants and others we call “underrepresented” even though they are vast segments of the rest of Canadian society. 

It means Canada’s farms are getting less and less Canadian.

Why is that? And what’s to be done about it? Canadian ag leaders are increasingly aware that agriculture needs to open up in order to future-proof the industry. More than ever, becoming inclusive is both a moral responsibility and a business imperative.

Now, bold conversations are beginning. New ideas are surfacing. Below are just a sampling of what Country Guide found when we went looking. Across the country, there’s a feeling that history is about to change.

Early in 2021, the Western Producer carried an op-ed article headlined, “It is Time for Bold Moves on Diversity” and in Alberta Farmer Express, “It is Time to Finally Address the Lack of Diversity in Agriculture.”

It was written by two Canadian farm leaders, Erin Gowriluk and Hannah Konschuh. In plain, powerful language, they asked the industry to look at itself in a way it seldom has before. 

Erin Gowriluk. photo: Supplied

“Although our industry has made progress in the areas of inclusion and diversity in recent decades,” they wrote, “we are nowhere near where we need to be.”

Gowriluk, executive director of Grain Growers of Canada and Konschuh, a farmer from Cluny, Alta., were launching The Diversity Imperative podcast, a project sponsored by Syngenta. 

Recent world events had kindled the need to find where there’s room for improvement in their industry, say the two women, both fully cognizant this is a conversation that’s far from easy to have, or even begin.

Yet, as they both also say, tough questions lead to great conversation, and great conversation leads to progress. And begin, we must.

What initially compelled Konschuh, who also sits on the Alberta Wheat Commission board of directors and has provided leadership in other areas, was her own acute awareness that women aren’t yet as engaged as they could and should be. And the industry can be painfully slow to change. Just ask any group of women, she says, about the leers, the offensive remarks and the putdowns they can be subjected to at any farm trade show.

“It shouldn’t be the norm to have only one female producer in the room sitting around the board table for any organization,” Konschuh says.

Hannah Konschuh. photo: Supplied

It’s also been clear for a long time that there’s far more to talk about than gender when it comes to inclusivity. 

“If we are going to have fulsome conversations about DEI (diversity, equity and inclusiveness) in our sector, it includes more than just our experience as women in ag. We need to be talking about LGBTQ inclusion, we need to be talking about race and racism, about Indigenous agriculture. A big one for me is ability and ableism.”

The Diversity Imperative’s first six episodes have already covered a lot of ground, including guests such as Christine Simpson, hockey reporter for Sportsnet, talking about what sport can teach agriculture when it comes to diversity and inclusion and production ag specialist Julia Romagnoli with John Deere from Guelph, Ont., the creator and curator of the Pride in Ag Instagram account to make positive change for LGBTQ inclusion across the sector.

University of Saskatchewan’s assistant professor and soil biogeochemist Melissa Arcand, who is also academic advisor for a program training students to work in resource management and land governance in Indigenous communities, has also been a guest, as has Marie-Claude Bibeau talking about being the first federal female Minister of Agriculture in Canada. 

The podcast has proved ideal for getting this discussion rolling, says Gowriluk. She, too, had been thinking about these issues a long while, and says that prior to making her own commitment to this project, she saw things she found unsettling on social media when she tried to raise topics about the inclusion of women. 

“I was surprised by the reactions that I would get,” she says. “Typically women were very supportive and understanding of what I was posting. But I was really surprised to see some of the other reactions. They were sometimes aggressive, or angry. They implied that I had no business sharing these sorts of things, or suggesting that there even was an issue.

“That was the first thing that said to me ‘we’ve got a long way to go’, when many of our male colleagues in this sector refuse to even see there may be some challenges for their female colleagues.”

Beef Farmers of Ontario

Diversity, equity and inclusion have become priority areas for workplaces in many industries, as boards ask who’s missing from the table and employers try to figure out what meaningful changes they must make to become more inclusive. Now, the first farm organizations are starting to take bold steps in this direction. 

Beef Farmers of Ontario is convinced diversity matters, and it is intent on building DEI into their sector.

In early January the group representing 19,000 beef producers gave the agri-food industry much to think about with the release of a strongly worded, detailed diversity, equity and inclusion statement.

They were committing their organization to advocate for DEI within the beef sector and to joining “with those in our community who are calling for an end to systemic racism, as well as discrimination and prejudice based on sexual orientation, gender, religion, and ability (visible and invisible), and linguistic discrimination,” the statement said.

BFO leaders were frank about why they were taking this stand.

“We recognize the beef sector is not always a diverse industry, particularly at the farmer and association level,” said BFO president Rob Lipsett.

“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.”

Jordan Miller was one of BFO’s board members urging their association to make this move.

Jordan Miller. photo: Supplied

His own thoughts around diversity began to intensify since the murder of American George Floyd in 2020 and attention focused on racism and social inequity.

“Change is hard, but big change is necessary. This is a first step,” says Miller, a sixth-generation cow/calf operator from Manitoulin Island who joined with fellow BFO director Joe Dickenson to urge his industry group to go in this direction.

The rest of the BFO board supported this even while recognizing it could be polarizing among even their own membership.

“I was a bit apprehensive,” admits Miller. “You never know how people are going to react but the board unanimously accepted it.”

The plan commits their organization to learning and ultimately to action, although it will take some time to figure out what that action will actually look like, Miller says. Their DEI statement recognizes the need to develop from within the organization, and that means a commitment to listening and learning, and to speaking up against discriminatory language and behavior.

Since releasing the statement they’ve hired Ontario-based leadership training company Bloom Consulting to do diversity training for the board, committee members and staff.

“Right now we simply don’t understand all of the issues,” Miller says. “We shouldn’t pretend that we do.”

Building relationships

At its root, diversity in agriculture is about building relationships both within and beyond the sector itself.

Farm Credit Canada views the diversification of Canada’s agriculture and food industry as an integral part of its mandate, and it says it begins with both understanding and supporting this country’s Indigenous communities and entrepreneurs to grow and thrive in our agriculture and food industry, says Michael Hoffort, FCC president and CEO.

“It begins with developing a deeper understanding of Indigenous agriculture — the history, barriers, aspirations and opportunities of today,” said Hoffort in a recent release announcing findings of an FCC survey of Canadian Indigenous farmers. 

The survey asked producers to identify how they’re currently involved in the sector, the barriers they face and the opportunities they’re seizing (see Indigenous Challenges).

Human resource crisis

It isn’t agriculture’s only challenge. Finding ways for a broader representation of more population groups in agriculture is happening at the same time as we’re learning more about the industry’s overall skills shortage.

Now bordering on a human resource crisis, the numbers clearly show agriculture’s dearth of human capacity for managing, innovating, and operating farms and agribusinesses is a problem that is only intensifying as time passes. It means that making progress on revitalizing agriculture’s most important resource — its human resource — matters more than ever. 

The acute skills shortage and the associated business risks it poses to the entire sector are most clearly depicted in research conducted by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) which has long recognized that women, Indigenous people, immigrants and persons with disabilities are underrepresented even though they have the potential to make important contributions.

Boosting diversity, equity and inclusion has long been a focus of CAHRC’s extensive work to help agricultural employers become inclusive, supportive employers of choice, says Jennifer Wright, a senior advisor with CAHRC, whose organization is continuously exploring ways to increase the participation of underrepresented groups in the sector.

Jennifer Wright. photo: Supplied

CAHRC has sponsored a large volume of original research, developed profiles and case studies, and posted numerous documents on its website on a wide range of related topics, including structural racism within the food system and tools to help farm and other ag business owners create inclusive work environments. 

“The research is very clear,” says Wright. “When you have an employee base with diverse experiences and backgrounds, you actually have a really positive impact on your bottom line. It’s because you have different ideas and different ways of doing things coming to the table. It helps support an innovative work environment.”

Students

Meanwhile, schools of agriculture across the country continue to be a key front in attracting more people from diverse backgrounds to the sector. 

Progress has been made in recent years through promoting their programs to young people who didn’t grow up on the farm, says Michele Rogalsky, director of the school of agriculture within the faculty of agricultural and food sciences at University of Manitoba. 

Without question the number of female students is rising and the gender gap is closing, she says. Today about a third of all students are female and, notably, many plan to become managers of family farms. 

They’ve also seen the number of international students rise over the years.

“Back in the 1990s it was zero to one per cent,” Rogalsky says. “It increased a bit in the 2000s, but we had a big jump last fall at 5.9 per cent.”

There are many ways these students’ global perspectives benefit their program. However, where Rogalsky sees work ahead is in building relationships with Indigenous communities so their youth will be attracted to the program, too. 

“I think we as an ag sector have done a very poor job communicating and targeting that message to the influencers and decision-makers that are supporting these young individuals when they’re making their career path,” she says. 

Geoff Brown. photo: Supplied

Likewise, Geoff Brown, dean of agricultural and environmental sciences at Lakeland College says, colleges are also working hard to attract students from a greater diversity of backgrounds, including more women, and more Indigenous and international students. 

“There are just so many careers in agriculture and we need good people from all over,” Brown says. “When you draw in a diverse population, and under-represented populations, you bring in different perspectives that aren’t quite as traditional, which can only strengthen the industry.”

Adds Konschuh: “We are an industry that relies on innovation yet the conversation often focuses on technology. But what’s the conduit that that technology comes to life by? Well, it’s by people. We’ve typically been pulling from one demographic. To meet some of the lofty goals we’ve set for ourselves as a sector, we need all sorts of people contributing to that goal.”

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

How do we get there? That’s what podcasts and DEI statements and outreach programs for creating inclusive workplaces are for. 

Yes, this is a conversation that can cause cognitive dissonance, or shoulder shrugging, or outright resistance. But the same could be said about early initiatives to improve safety on the farm. That was once something a lot of farmers didn’t want to talk about either. 

“Let’s all agree to lean into this together, shall we?” says Gowriluk. “Accept that there may be times that you may fear that you may say the wrong thing or offend someone, but I think if you are there, that suggests you’re coming from the right place. As long as you’re open to hearing from others, understanding their perspectives and learning along the way, I think that’s a really good place to start.” 

Indigenous challenges

More than 70 per cent of Indigenous producers in Canada told a recent FCC online survey they plan to increase participation in the ag sector over the next five years.

That’s despite their also reporting a poor to average experience in the sector in the past, with challenges including access to capital, equipment, labour and knowledge.

It’s a sign of changing times and the increasing priority we can expect to see placed on agriculture within overall economic development across Canadian Indigenous communities.

The survey was commissioned last fall to gain a better understanding of Indigenous producers’ priorities, what they’re doing now and where they see opportunities ahead, says Shaun Soonias, FCC’s director of Indigenous relations. 

Shaun Soonias. photo: FCC

It wasn’t a large survey but it has yielded important insights that will enable FCC to be a supportive partner in the advancement of Indigenous agriculture in the spirit of reconciliation and collaboration, Soonias says. 

One of the reasons for increasing interest in agriculture is that more communities are regaining access to significant land bases through Treaty Land Entitlement settlements. 

“What we’re seeing now is a lot of communities starting to shift their eyes back to lands that they have in their control and see what they can do to fully monetize them and steward them,” he says.

The survey respondents also expressed notable interest re-establishing Indigenous food security and placed high priority on the need to create agricultural and financial learning opportunities for Indigenous youth. Things need to be done to ensure the next generation is prepared and excited to continue growing agriculture and food businesses, while fostering relationships with elders who offer a wealth of traditional knowledge, the survey respondents said.

Almost half said they see significant opportunities in greenhouse operation, community gardens, food processing and other small-scale agriculture activities on Indigenous lands.

Soonias, who is also a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation near Battleford, Sask., said FCC wants not only to better understand the landscape of Indigenous agriculture in Canada but to be a partner in advancing Indigenous agriculture in all the forms it will take. 

“We [FCC] haven’t been in this space historically,” Soonias says. “Loans were available and made, and we’ve done business, but there wasn’t anything that was really structured around how to foster success and not only to address the opportunities but some of the challenges that are unique to Indigenous communities.”

Another initiative now underway within FCC is extensive Indigenous awareness and relations training underway for its 2,000 employees across Canada. The training aims to help staff better understand the legislative and systemic barriers that prevent Indigenous communities from fully participating in Canada’s agriculture industry, and the long-standing hurdles that have also been faced by the country’s Métis and Inuit populations. 

The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council has also been researching issues and priorities of Indigenous producers, noting in a 2020 report that while the Canadian farm population is declining, the share of Indigenous people in the ag sector has grown significantly. 

The number of Indigenous ag operators leapt 51.6 per cent between 1996 and 2016. 

Indigenous operators are pursuing activities related to traditional practices like harvesting of berries, herbs, rice and plants and other non-timber forest products, tapping trees for maple syrup production, and combining plants into traditional medicine, as well as fishing, hunting and trapping. 

Ranching and farming are gaining too, from cattle ranching to bison and beekeeping, and more operators are starting agri-tourism and farm-to-table businesses, setting up farm education attractions with interpretive sites and restaurants.

About the author

Associate editor

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is associate editor with Country Guide. She has also covered agriculture and rural issues since 1995 as a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator and Farmers’ Independent Weekly.

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