INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Agricultural businesses should develop an inclusive workplace environment to help grow their companies, according to a panel.
The panel, made up of people representing businesses and not-for-profit societies, told members of the National Grain and Feed Association that better profits can be had when employees of all backgrounds feel like they are part of the team.
“A lot of new students you may hire might not have an agriculture background or much experience in the industry, but if you truly put in an initiative to develop a relationship with them, you will have a loyal employee and will get the profits you want,” said Mia Farrell, the national president for MANRRS, an organization that helps agricultural businesses recruit students of diverse backgrounds.
“It’s important for an inclusive environment to be created. Treat those employees like family,” she said, speaking at the Country Elevator Conference in Indianapolis.
Conference organizers said diversity and inclusivity are important topics to discuss because it has been difficult for the agriculture industry to attract and retain workers.
Everyone has diverse backgrounds, they said, but there aren’t many people of colour, women, people with non-Christian faiths, or members of the LGBTQ+ community working in agriculture.
Rural America is predominantly white and aging, they added, meaning it will be important to attract people of different backgrounds, as well as providing them with an inclusive workplace, to ensure a thriving workforce.
The challenge is finding diverse people to work. Some companies may not be as inclusive given workers generally haven’t been exposed to individuals of diverse backgrounds.
A member of the audience noted some workers might still tell sexual jokes that aren’t OK, or discuss political views that could make someone of a different background uncomfortable.
To address this, the panel said it’s up to management to model inclusive behaviour, which could then be accepted by employees. As well, employees should be able to speak up when others are making them feel uncomfortable.
“As a woman and as a woman of colour, I’ve been in those situations and it’s on me to let others know it’s uncomfortable, but in a way where I’m meeting them where they are,” said Megan Weidner, vice-president of corporate responsibility and sustainability with Bunge North America.
“It’s on us to educate a little bit and also be open to speak up. I believe people are good in their heart,” she said.
Organizations can also create groups within the company that bring inclusiveness to the forefront, she added.
“For me, inclusion is about bringing your best self and bringing your true self to work,” Weidner said. “That doesn’t mean you have to agree with me or that you have to accept what I do at home, but it’s about seeing the person for who they are and allowing them to be who they are.”
Dave Hoogmoed, the executive president of co-operative Land O’Lakes, as well as president of Purina Animal Nutrition, said upper management should model inclusive behaviours and set the tone for employees to follow.
It’s also up to new employees to speak up, he added.
“Be candid, speak up and control your destiny,” he said. “You own your career. Don’t wait for someone to open it.”
Weidner said she had to put herself forward to advance her career. She would attend meetings she wasn’t invited to, showing her employer she can handle bigger tasks.
“It has to do with helping yourself and being confident, being sure and knowing you’re supposed to be there,” she said. “Things are changing and it is still a male-dominated field, but we have a place and I’m going to make a place for me.”
In order for those candid conversations to happen, Farrell said employees need to know and feel they are valued.
“You want to make people feel like they belong,” she said. “People want to feel valued. They want to feel like their ideas are being brought forth to the table.”
Hoogmoed said listening to new recruits and taking their concerns seriously is also key.
A person in the audience told the panel that even though it’s up to people to put themselves forward, employers shouldn’t discount potential candidates because of their gender, for example.
Land O’Lakes recently partnered with MANRRS to recruit interns of diverse backgrounds to work for the company.
Hoogmoed said he found there was a tremendous resource of young people willing to work in the industry, suggesting that companies are going to have to go out of their local areas to find employees.
“Businesses are going to have to recruit rather than wait for resumés to come in,” he said. “We also have to advertise ourselves as agriculture businesses. Some students think they need to be in animal science or animal nutrition programs, but we need people in finance, IT, human resources and trade.”
Weidner said Bunge has also looked beyond traditional agriculture universities to recruit diverse and great talent.
“We’ve had success looking outside the traditional area,” she said. “We talk with students and tell them they will be in a small rural town, and that they will be moving grain and that it might be dirty. Many understand that, and they want to do it.”