Agriculture is one of the least diverse professions in the UK, but a growing movement is attempting to address it – and it all starts with education. Olivia Midgley and Hannah Binns report.
Tackling the issue of diversity in agriculture
Agriculture has made headway in moving away from its male dominated stereotype, but industry leaders and education providers believe there is more work to be done to make the sector truly diverse and inclusive.
According to 2018 data from the Office for National Statistics, 17 per cent of UK farmers are female, but only 1 per cent are from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.
On ethnic diversity, the sector falls behind construction where 5 per cent of the workforce is from a BAME background, but only 12 per cent is female.
Campaigners say that without action, the sector could fail to attract and retain talent from all backgrounds and as a result, affect how the public relate to their food and the people who produce it.
Speaking at the recent Northern Real Farming Conference, Navaratnam (Theeb) Partheeban, a dairy vet and co-founder of the British Veterinary Ethnicity and Diversity Society (BVEDS), formed in 2016, said: “BAMEs make up 17.5 per cent of the UK’s population, Wales and Scotland put together, but less than 1 per cent work in agriculture.
“We need to be questioning what is preventing people of ethnic minorities getting involved.
“It may be a difficult and uncomfortable discussion but if we do not have it, then these issues will persist.”
Next year he will undertake a Nuffield Scholarship on encouraging and supporting an ethnically diverse workforce in the agricultural, farming and veterinary sector, sponsored by McDonald’s.
Uma Selvon, a fourth-year veterinary medicine student and aspiring farm vet from the University of Surrey, cited a lack of access to opportunities and role models as barriers for BAMEs.
“It is hard to see where you fit in as there are not many people of colour working within the agri-vet industry, with few role models to encourage others either,” she said.
“In my experience people entering farm veterinary have often already worked or grown up on farms, so having restricted access to agriculture earlier in life meant I had to travel further than most students to find farms willing to take me.
“I am lucky as I had family support who were willing to take me to get those experiences but not every BAME has that.”
She added that incidents of racist remarks made towards students from farmers on placement are often brushed off and accepted as ‘normal’ industry behaviour.
Flavian Obiero, a pig farmer in East Sussex, said: “Microagressions are worse than outright racism and a lot of people do not realise they are doing it, making assumptions from what they have heard or seen.
“While words often go in one ear and out of the other, from a mental health point of view it really does chip away at you,” he said.
Aiming to adopt a holistic approach to diversity within its community, Harper Adams University said its courses were designed so they could be commenced without prior knowledge, with all candidates, regardless of age, ethnicity, disability, orientation or any other variable, given access to the same learning and development opportunities.
The Royal Agricultural University (RAU) added it was redesigning its curriculum to make it more accessible to students from all backgrounds and embed diversity within teaching content.
“As an academic community we recognise the need to present a wider diversity of perspectives; to provide a sense of inclusion for underrepresented groups, with a curriculum that is world referencing and draws on a range of case study materials and sources,” a spokesperson said.
Ffion Storer Jones, who grew up on a family farm in Montgomeryshire, mid Wales, is a steering committee member of the Rural Youth Project, an international grassroots movement which helps to empower young people aged 18-28 to develop strategies to facilitate the involvement of young people in rural areas.
Supported by the Henry Plumb Foundation, she is running a survey which aims to better understand not only the challenges faced by rural youth in Wales, but also to gather innovative solutions to overcome them.
She said: “Young people are important members of rural communities, but we are not well researched or understood,” adding diversity and inclusion was an area which needed attention.
“As an agricultural community we cannot say we have it all figured out in terms of giving access to diverse voices. Farming is often seen as being male dominated and that is so frustrating.
“That is being addressed by having capable female leaders such as NFU president Minette Batters but we need more role models as we cannot be what we cannot see.”
Ms Storer Jones highlighted a recent debate on social media which called out ‘stale, male and pale’ agricultural panel discussions.
“There is an issue with representation,” she added.
“I do feel my voice is not always heard and that is partly to do with my age but I also think gender comes into it to a degree.
“As a community, we are also lagging behind on ethnic diversity. As a young person I want to see this changed pretty rapidly. Diversity in all its forms is central to any thriving sector.”
Georgie Fort, West Yorkshire livestock farmer and Yorkshire YFC chairwoman, said while she believed change was afoot, she was often stereotyped.
She said: “People do not get that when you become a mother you do not have to stop farming.
“They seem to think my husband does it or we have staff. We do not – I do it all myself.
“We need recognition on a bigger level that women are farming in their own right and for this to become the norm, because it is.
“My husband is a semen rep in Lancashire and he travels to a lot of farms – more often that not he says the women are the operators. It is more common but women just do not get the recognition for it.”
Ms Fort said it was vital for the industry to attract from a greater pool of people, from different backgrounds.
“It all starts in schools and teaching about where food comes from,” she added.
“Agriculture is not just about working on a farm, there is such a diverse range of jobs that make up the industry and you need different people coming in with different ideas.
“It then needs support and funding from the bigger companies to bring people on, who then can go on to have rewarding careers.”
One segment of the agri-supply chain which has a particularly long journey ahead in terms of attracting new talent, is the meat sector.
Laura Ryan, founder of Meat Business Women, said: “Speaking to graduates it is clear they cannot see what opportunities exist in the meat industry for them. And this is not even necessarily about gender, it is because the meat industry is not showcasing the breadth of opportunity within it.
“It is not demonstrating itself as a positive place to work and one that is attractive to talent, particularly female talent.”
Ms Ryan said with the sector being under so much pressure, the diversity and inclusion piece was further down the list in terms of priorities.
“It needs to act and it needs to act now,” she added.
“There are some organisations that are having spotlights of success, but we need to come together and work on a program to showcase the industry as a positive place to work.
“Traditionally the meat industry has not been proactive in championing its own cause. But this should be a key part of business strategy.
“If it wants to be profitable, agile and as successful as other sectors it needs to have a pipeline of female talent coming through to the top of organisations.
“Women also need to see role models in the meat sector with a path they can follow right to the top.”
Ms Ryan said it was also a sector often associated with long hours and inflexible working patterns. However, Covid-19 had brought a new way of working.
She added: “The pandemic has enabled us to see technology as a solution to working more flexibly and for men and women with caring responsibilities for relatives or children it offers a route for them to stay and excel in the sector.”
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