Uncomfortable conversations help drive diversity in agriculture


This article was written by Becca Frazier with Agriculture Future of America, which is helping to equip students to become allies for diversity in agriculture.


2020 brought a variety of social issues to the surface and created momentum within racial justice movements, heightening conversations about diversity of all types. The make-up of the country and agriculture industry continues to evolve. Agriculture has an opportunity to embrace the benefits diversity provides, including individuals with valued skills, identities and ideas.

College students are continually exposed to people from differing ideological, ethnic, geographic, spiritual, socioeconomic, sexual, and political backgrounds and experiences. It is vital to prepare them with skills and tools to effectively engage in conversations that challenge their perspectives and ways of thinking.

“Within higher education, we often hear industry professionals note it’s essential for new hires to be proficient in cultural EQ,” says Katie Gaebel, Ph.D. in educational policy and leadership, and AFA director of programs. “Similarly, new hires report they’re not looking to see how fast they can get the corner office anymore. They want to work at a company that prioritizes diversity and shares their values.”

Rising to the challenge of providing a safe space for the future leaders of agriculture to learn and practice such skills, Agriculture Future of America hosted a virtual experience for young professionals studying in agriculture and related fields. The series, AFA Bridge: Thriving through our differences, brought together 29 students from across the nation for intimate virtual discussions where they shared experiences and perspectives.

Participants engaged in sessions that provided educational background on topics including racism in land-grant institutions, diversity hires, power and privilege, and allyship in agriculture.

Deepening connectivity through diversity

Onsang Yau, a junior studying animal science at Cornell University, applied to participate in the AFA Bridge experience to better understand how she could approach differences within the industry.

“As an Asian American and non-traditional agriculture student, I don’t have the same experiences as my classmates that were involved in 4-H or FFA,” says Yau. “There aren’t a lot of Asian Americans in the industry either, which has a large impact on agriculture. Diversity allows the industry to further advance through combining unique ideas and thoughts from people of different races and backgrounds.”

Yau was born in New York City and moved to China at the age of 2. She returned to New York City for high school and was introduced to agriculture through reading pest management research to solve grain mite infections affecting her Dubia roach breeding colony. While she quickly found her place within agriculture, Yau understands the barriers many face in finding opportunities to engage.

“Diversity in agriculture creates opportunities for people to see someone like them within the industry,” says Yau. “The Bridge series highlighted the importance of this and provided historical context for diversity in agriculture, which allowed me to understand why diversity is lagging within academic institutions and the industry as a whole.”

Yau notes she expected the Bridge series to appeal to students from minority populations like herself but after participating, she was surprised to find the opposite. Of the program participants, 83 percent identified as Caucasian. Yau felt this was a great opportunity for those students to gain a deeper understanding and education on diversity and its importance.

“AFA hosting this program proves commitment to heightening the significance of diversity in agriculture and makes me feel confident in my decision to be involved in agriculture,” says Yau. “Emphasizing diversity in agriculture also helps students like myself realize that we are not alone and there are other students from unique backgrounds as well.”

Diversity providing unity for a stronger industry

Being an ally for diversity, equity, inclusion and engagement has become a passion for Paul Schlotman, a South Dakota State University sophomore studying agricultural and biological engineering. Growing up in a mostly white farming community in Iowa, Schlotman had little exposure to diversity in his hometown.

Upon arriving at college, Schlotman joined Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. Valuing diversity and inclusion is an area of focus for the fraternity, both on campus and within the community. When Schlotman heard about the Bridge series, he registered to gain a deeper understanding of diversity.

“As a Christian, I believe God creates everyone equally, but it wasn’t until I participated in the Bridge series that I gained a wider perspective on issues related to diversity and inclusion within agriculture,” says Schlotman. “Through this program, I had a stark realization that how I perceive a situation may be entirely different than how someone else perceives it. I want to be an advocate for not only diversity, but also empathy and understanding.”

As the vice president of recruitment for Sigma Phi Epsilon, Schlotman has raised the importance of having hard conversations about diversity with his fellow brothers. The fraternity hosts a program that facilitates intellectual conversations about various topics over a scheduled dinner and Schlotman has slated a series of conversations to discuss diversity, equity, inclusion and engagement.

“When I think of diversity, equity, inclusion and engagement, I think of unity,” says Schlotman. “In unity, there is strength. If we don’t have unity within agriculture, everyone will suffer because of division, and we’ll struggle to provide what every person needs — food. In our growing world, we need unity to find solutions for doing more with less.”

Championing diversity with constructive conversations

The 2020 turmoil and social unrest surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement spurred Gabriela Sajic, a sophomore studying animal science at Bakersfield College in California, to dig deeper into diversity and have hard conversations about it. Sajic participated in the Bridge series to learn ways to navigate uncomfortable conversations and use her voice to respond in respectful and effective ways.

Sajic knows firsthand the value differing perspectives and experiences bring to the industry as she has a unique background herself. She identifies as Hispanic and stepped into agriculture with no prior involvement. Sajic has goals to become an agriculture education teacher and hopes to show her students there is a place for everyone in the industry.

“We need to respect people like we would like to be respected,” says Sajic. “We need to include people who may have different ways of thinking but can also bring new and innovative ideas to the table. And, we need to have equity so that everyone can be empowered with equal opportunities to succeed.”

Sajic emphasizes communication is a driving factor in reaching understanding and awareness within the context of diversity, equity, inclusion and engagement. The Bridge series provided her with knowledge and insights on how to effectively engage with those who are different than her in constructive conversations.

“Being understandable, curious and compassionate is my biggest takeaway from this experience,” says Sajic. “The Bridge taught participants how to engage in conversations with people you might not agree with, while also reflecting on our own thoughts and consider that maybe we, ourselves, need to be corrected.”

Creating lasting change

Fostering engagement with people of all backgrounds and experiences goes hand in hand with diversity, equity, inclusion and engagement within agriculture. Heightening this work is vital to cultivate a more vibrant and productive industry, and AFA continues to place emphasis in these areas to advance the greater food and agriculture system. As a catalyst in preparing students to become the future leaders of the industry, AFA programs like the Bridge value student experiences and create spaces for them to grow personally and professionally.

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