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Diversity in agriculture is not just a “women’s issue…”

By October 30, 2015 Stakeholder No Comments

A few weeks ago I was invited to attend – and sponsor – a women in agriculture event. I didn’t need time to think about it.

I declined.

Almost immediately my phone rang: “Isn’t your business all about agri-food? That’s the third year running you’ve declined? Why?”

Yes, a fair bit of Currie’s business is agri-food. 55% in fact.

Yes, it was the third time I’d declined to partake.

Why?

I’m adverse to ‘women’s’ events.

This isn’t because the challenge of gender balance isn’t real in Australian agriculture. It is.

When facilitating workshops or attending meetings with Currie agricultural clients, there are almost always fewer women in the room. On occasion I’ve been the only one.

In 2014, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Gender composition of the workforce: by industry reported that the female workforce participation in agriculture, forestry and fishing was a feeble 28 percent.

This is why I applaud the many women who are finding ways to lead all along the supply chain, from the farm gate to the boardrooms of some our largest agricultural companies, and beyond.

I acknowledge that in seeking to support, acknowledge and inspire- women in agriculture events mobilise many…

BUT

If we’re going to tackle a skills shortage, and build a sustainable, successful Australian agriculture industry for the future, we need structural and cultural change that draws on the learnings that only diversity in gender, age, ethnicity, and background can provide.

Tackling only one of these at a time is a wasted opportunity.

The resilience and sustainability – of both a community and its economy – is underpinned by diversity. Diversity of sectors, of businesses, of structures, of people.

Australia’s climate and geography provides the opportunity for unrivalled primary production systems, and as a result businesses of all shapes and sizes are learning to flourish.

Structurally Australian agriculture has undergone significant change over the past 25 years. Single desks and subsidies have largely departed, markets for much of what we produce have shifted off-shore, and farm businesses have consolidated. That change continues.

Yet recognition of the benefits of a diverse workforce and community has been slow, and behaviour that actually enables that even slower.

For the past decade agribusiness has lamented a skills shortage, and eagerly eyes the annual tertiary enrolments in order to herald the rising number of students in agriculturally-related courses.

However, during the time it takes those students now entering the education system to become valuable contributors to the agricultural economy, several thousand from beyond Australia’s shores will try and fail to become part of Australian agriculture.

Why will they fail?

Because as an industry, agriculture has not embraced the benefits of diversity.

Historically we have expected a farmer to be a farmer’s son. Only very recently industry has begun to court the idea of encouraging those from other walks of life to investigate agriculture – but tellingly we’re yet to build ownership structures and opportunities to facilitate that.

Admittedly, over the past decade those along the supply chain have incrementally – by virtue of necessity – employed migrants from various cultural backgrounds. They can typically be found in technical roles, predominantly in the larger corporates, and almost always in city-based head offices.

Yet agribusiness remains reluctant to put those of different cultural backgrounds in ‘farmer facing’ roles. Why?

Because they don’t think farmers will accept them.

Our industry would benefit from overcoming this historical prejudice, and should stop using it as an excuse. Farmers will accept – and indeed welcome – people who offer their business an edge.

I challenge Australian agriculture to become more inclusive, and in doing so enjoy the success and sustainability that such diversity (including, but not only a balance of genders) will help build.

About Susan McNair

A former managing editor, Susan knows how to organise. No matter how tight the deadline or challenging the brief, she draws on her significant experience and problem solving ability to get the best result. A popular public speaker, particularly on rural issues, Susan has strong opinions on where punctuation marks belong. Read more posts by Susan.

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