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Caroline Millar: Why a warm welcome is the key to increasing diversity in our industry

My dad drummed into us from an early age the importance of a warm welcome, either to friends or strangers. A firm handshake, a smile, offering someone a drink and asking them where they have come from, how was their journey? Putting people at ease.

Caroline Millar
Caroline Millar

Dad learned his trade in Blairgowrie Young Farmers and many at his funeral remembered him specifically for his efforts to make the first time attendees feel welcome, making sure they had someone to speak to and ensuring no one felt like a complete plonker standing on their own.

 

I have been that plonker standing on my own at industry meetings. I have been the person killing time in the toilets before the meeting starts as no one has spoken to me on arrival.

 

Or worse than that, someone has asked me ’what are you doing here? I didn’t think this was your scene’. While that particular incident happened 15 years ago, I didn’t venture out to another agricultural industry meeting for about five years after that night.

 

There’s been a lot said recently about the need to increase diversity in the agriculture sector and specifically diversity in leadership in the agriculture sector.

 

Talent

 

Not many people argue about the significant benefits to agriculture arising from our domestic and international customers, other industries and government being able to view our sector as one which embraces and retains talent regardless of gender, sexual orientation, age and ethnicity.

 

The road to achieving this however is one which is already proving challenging as people argue about the best way to get there.

 

Specifically, the women in agriculture movement has provoked a lot of debate about how best to achieve more women farming in their own right and more women represented throughout the sector.

 

Oxford Farming Conference kicks of the new year next week and I can honestly say that this event for me has been a warm and friendly environment not only as an attendee but as a speaker and then a director.

 

Moving from attending to being involved in the organisation of the event it is clear that there is a strong culture of inclusiveness, despite a fresh set of three directors leaving each year and three new directors arriving.

 

As a woman in agriculture, knowing that other inspiring women have gone before as a director, to name a few, Teresa Wickham, Caroline Drummond, Jane King, Christine Tacon, Tina Barsby, Debbie Beaton, Charlotte Smith, makes a significant difference. They have also not sailed off into the sunset but are there to support you.

 

Positive role models you can relate to are essential. Knowing that an organisation welcomes you and you can contribute and develop your skills is significant.

 

Oxford Farming Conference has always been an environment people will speak to you. Arguably the biggest gathering of leaders in the agri food supply chain in the UK, you sit down next to anyone in conference or at a meal and they will be friendly and interested in you.

 

Maybe it’s just they are glad to be out after two weeks couped up with family after Christmas but the first time I attended I sat down at dinner knowing no one, next to the main buyer for one of the main supermarkets, the chief executive of the RSPB, and an Irish farmer. Sounds like the start of a joke but at no point did I feel I wasn’t meant to be in the room.

Women represented on the stage as speakers, panellists, chairs of sessions.

 

Ensuring the chair selects questions not just from his or her pals or the usual faces in the audience but a wide range of ages, sexes and the person up the back who looks like standing up with the microphone has been a big deal.

 

Next week it is six years since I spoke at Oxford, alongside another Scottish farmer from Berwickshire, Sally Williams.

 

If evidence were required of setting the right environment then actively inviting talented people to engage with your organisation, Sally too has gone to be a director of OFC and will Chair the 2021 conference.

 

The new intake of directors in 2020 will have for the first time three women in post.

 

Significant credit to Matthew Naylor this year’s Chair who has used his time to progress the organisation even further. One of the main fringe sessions at the conference will focus on increasing diversity of all types in the sector.

 

This is not about men versus women. Its about setting the tone, casting the net far and wide and getting the best people involved in driving our sector forward.

 

The rapid changes our sector will experience in the next five years as we leave the EU will require all the talent, we can muster to ensure we can retain and grow a vibrant agri-food sector.

 

As we move into a new decade, no one should be hanging about in the toilets waiting for the meeting to start. Instead we should be standing in the foyer, ensuring others coming through the door for the first time have a very warm welcome.

 

  • Caroline Millar and husband Ross farm beef, lamb and malting barley on the family farm at Auchterhouse in South Angus. They also farm tourists in 5-star Hideaways on the farm. Caroline is a rural business consultant and facilitates Scotland’s two agritourism monitor farms.
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