Welcoming to who?

I love agriculture.

I grew up on an irrigated farm in the panhandle of Nebraska. My grandma & grandpa, my aunts & uncles, and my mom & dad all farmed together, and three of our families lived within 1 mile of each other. I grew up farming the same land that my grandparents farmed while raising my dad & his siblings. Most of my cousins and most of the friends I grew up with also grew up on farms. It was a wonderful life. Obviously, at the time, I hated getting up at 5:30am to go change irrigation water, and I still have flashbacks of when my dad made us spend the weekend pulling nightshade berries out of the pinto bean windrows. (For the record, my dad maintains to this day that “It wasn’t that bad…”) But looking back, I wouldn’t trade those farm kid experiences for the world.

In college, after some exploration of a few different majors (philosophy, education, math, business), I eventually came back to agriculture. And I fell in love again. This time with the science of agriculture. I attended land-grant universities (University of Wyoming & University of Nebraska-Lincoln) to learn more about agriculture and science. The marriage of these two topics has fascinated me ever since.

The people I know in every facet of agriculture (like people in general) consider themselves to be kind and welcoming and empathetic. And they are! The farmers and others involved in agriculture have nearly always been kind and gracious and welcoming to me. And I’m not unique – my experience is similar to many who have grown up with agriculture, probably at least in part due to so many shared experiences. Walking bean rows, riding in the combine at harvest, riding bikes to the neighbor’s house. I hear ‘farm kid’ stories from people across the country and they could have just as easily been told by the kid who grew up down the road. With so many shared experiences, it is no wonder that so many of us seem to ‘fit in’ and find a welcoming environment in agriculture.

Agriculture has always been welcoming and kind – to some of us.

This will be obvious to many, but to determine whether agriculture is, in fact, a welcoming and inclusive place, the people who are already in agriculture is not the appropriate population to survey. There is a fantastic story about ‘survivorship bias’ that should be taught in every statistics class. It is a story of damage to WW2 planes returning from bombing missions. It has likely been embellished over the years, but the brief version of this story is this: A group of very smart people were called in to analyze the damage patterns on planes, with the objective of recommending where additional armor should be placed on the planes to protect them. The answer determined by this group of very smart people was counter-intuitive – additional armor should be placed where there is no damage to the planes that returned. The reasoning is that if a plane returns, the damage it sustained was tolerable, and therefore no additional armor was needed in those areas. The sample they had was missing critically important information: where was the damage on the planes that did not return? On the planes that returned, there was little damage to the cockpit or engines. The conclusion, then, was that if the cockpit or engine sustained major damage, those planes did not return. So that is where the armor should be placed.

Figure 1. Illustration of a hypothetical damage pattern on a WW2 plane, dot pattern roughly based on pattern credited to Cameron Moll. This image is licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Original file URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53081927

If you want to know whether agriculture is a welcoming environment, you need to ask people who are not in agriculture.

In many ways, our shared experiences have prepared us remarkably well for the difficult jobs in agriculture. Because of our shared background experiences, we understand the problems facing modern agriculture, and the complexity involved in what causes those problems. But solving the complex problems our industry faces, to use a cliché, will require ‘out of the box‘ thinking. The best way to find unconventional ideas and solutions is to think about the problem in unconventional ways. That can be difficult for me. My experiences in agriculture are, well, conventional. And I suspect this is true for most of us in agriculture.

There are times when we just don’t know what we don’t know.

The solution to any particular problem may be relatively simple, but also far enough outside our experiences and backgrounds that we may never figure it out. When our collective experiences and knowledge and backgrounds are limited, it is important to seek out people who think differently – people who have different backgrounds and life experiences. Solutions to complex problems are almost never the result of a lone “genius” figuring it all out; rather, great ideas typically originate with great teams, or even great adversaries. The ability of a group of people to think differently and unconventionally about problems (and potential solutions) is quite often a function of the background experiences that group has not shared.

We need more people in agriculture who don’t look like me.

The shared experiences, which often bond many of us in agriculture and provide comfort to so many of us, can also be malignant. We are too often distrustful and unwilling to listen to anyone who hasn’t shared our experience. We are unwilling to confront the fact that those whose experiences are very different than our own have experienced a completely different world, and they may have insight that we simply don’t have. I am regularly disappointed and even disgusted by the behavior of many prominent voices in agriculture. It is, sadly, common and easy to find racist and misogynistic memes being posted to social media by farmers and others in the industry. Many of those posts garner support from others who are like-minded. The most violent and egregious of these statements and images may get called out by peers – but most go completely unchecked. Doubling down on hurtful actions is a far more common response than a simple apology.

This isn’t a problem that can be solved with advice like “just log off of Twitter” or “block the trolls.” I have heard my own family and friends and colleagues make remarkably hateful comments and jokes in real life. Although Twitter and Facebook have certainly amplified the hate, this is not a problem caused by social media, nor can it be fixed by changing habits on social media.

I too am guilty. I have said things in the past that I now realize were not helpful or welcoming or inclusive. And I have definitely not done enough to try to curb the hateful conduct I have witnessed over the years. I have a platform, a stable job, and a position of power, and I have not used it strongly enough. I am going to try to do better, and I am asking everyone in agriculture to join me.

We have to do better.


This post is a revised version of an address I gave to the Western Society of Weed Science in 2019. I have shortened it, and modified to to be relevant to a wider audience. The original version can be found in the WSWS Proceedings (beginning on page 42).