Future of agriculture relies on diverse, inclusive workforce

Photography: John Eisele, Colorado State University

“We aren’t going to be successful in the aims we have for building diverse and inclusive thought partners, workplaces, universities, without the participation of everybody in this room,” said Kristin Kirkpatrick, as she moderated a panel at the Colorado State University AgInnovation Summit in early December.

Kirkpatrick recently transitioned into the role of executive director of Together We Grow, a consortium of the world’s largest agribusiness companies, universities and nonprofits, focused on increasing diversity and inclusion in the future agricultural workforce. The consortium’s Center for an Enhanced Workforce in Agribusiness will be housed at Spur, CSU System’s future campus at the National Western Center.

“We all play a role – each one of us in this room – in creating cultures that are inclusive,” Kirkpatrick said.

Embracing discomfort, driving innovation

The panel – which included Erin Fitzgerald of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance; Philomena Morrissey Satre of Land O’Lakes, Inc.; and Quentin Tyler, Ph.D., of Michigan State University – echoed Kirkpatrick’s open statements.

“True change happens when we have experiences,” said Tyler, associate dean and director for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and national advisory board chair of MANRRS (Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences). “The only way to have experiences is to put folks in situations where they’re uncomfortable – and we have to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Prior to MSU, Tyler spent more than 13 years advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives within the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture.

Quentin Tyler speaking
“If you’re going to bring your true self to work, you have to talk about all aspects of diversity.” – Quentin Tyler, Michigan State University

“I’m proud to say our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts [at Michigan State University] start at the top,” he said, crediting CANR Dean Ron Hendrick for his efforts to integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion into “every day of our jobs,” including a mandatory, one-week, offsite training for CANR faculty and staff.

Fitzgerald, chief executive officer of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, which includes 75 farm groups representing roughly 1.6 million farmers, emphasized the importance of difference throughout the industry.

“Diversity of thought – different types of leaders, different types of organizations that normally never touch agriculture” are key to connecting diversity and driving innovation, Fitzgerald said.

She noted that her top three objectives for the agricultural sector are absolute leadership to address climate change in the next 10 years, contagious collaboration, and culture change.

“We have to be resilient; we have to be adaptive, and we have to learn and grow fast to meet these challenges – and we have to do it together,” she said.

Erin Fitzgerald speaking
“We all have shared values, and we can build from those shared values, but now it’s time to put our values to work." – Erin Fitzgerald, U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance

Creating inclusive environments

Recruiting employees from diverse backgrounds is only one part of the equation – retention of those employees is equally important.

Satre, Land O’Lakes’ director of Diversity & Inclusion and Strategic Partnerships, emphasized the importance of maintaining an innovative mindset and being aware of unconscious bias when creating an “environment and culture of inclusion.”

Bringing employees from diverse backgrounds into companies is already trending up, but retaining those employees is an area that companies need to pay attention to.

“If someone does not feel like they belong, are part of the team, they’re not going to put their best foot forward – their voice won’t be heard,” she said. “Hiring, developing people, creating succession plans, deciding who gets on projects – all are impacted if we have a bias.”

Kirkpatrick concluded by noting the importance of hiring and retaining employees who reflect the diversity of the world population, especially considering the challenge of feeding the forecasted 9 billion people by 2050.

Philomena Satre speaking
"In order to solve complex problems, you have to have folks from all different places. They also have to feel comfortable enough where they can share their voices.” – Philomena Morrissey Satre, Land O’Lakes, Inc.

“To drive the kind of innovation that any of us needs to succeed, let alone to feed the world, we’re going to need a lot of diversity of thought,” she said.

Spur: CSU System at the National Western Center

Coming in 2022: The CSU System will open Spur, where innovative ideas and unforgettable experiences come to life at the National Western Center. Spur’s three buildings at the center of the landmark project in north Denver will ignite and fuel new ideas around water, food, and health and their impact on our lives and our world. Spur is where learning is open and accessible to all. Where researchers tackle the world’s most pressing problems around water, food, and health. Where art and culture challenge and surround you. Where rural and urban, local and global intersect. Learn more at nwc.colostate.edu.

Together We Grow

Together We Grow is an agribusiness consortium with more than 20 members, including major agricultural commodities companies, educational institutions, government agencies, and others committed to improving and expanding diversity in agribusiness. The consortium sponsors research and provides a platform to share best practices for building future workforce capacity. For more information, visit TogetherWeGrowAg.org.