Promoting farming as an inclusive industry is Matthew Naylor’s mission. Here he speaks to Emily Ashworth about AgRespect, his online idea to spark conversation about diversity and sexuality within agriculture.
The subject of attitudes towards gay people working in the farming industry has been brought under the spotlight by an organisation called Agrespect.
The initiative, co-founded by Lincolnshire farmer and chairman of Oxford Farming Conference, Matt Naylor, aims to celebrate LGBT people living and working in the countryside, by sharing stories from individuals who want to talk openly about their sexuality.
The idea that farming is a male-dominated industry – and one where feelings are cast aside or ignored in favour of keeping up appearances – is one which is slowly changing, as more people step up to say what is really going on for them.
Mental health, racism, sexuality – previously ‘taboo’ topics – are among those now being talked about. However, just because the subjects are more widely discussed, it does not mean those dealing with such issues are widely accepted.
Matt, who faced a few challenges himself when he came out in his 20s, felt that an organisation like Agrespect was needed to show the world that agriculture is a diverse and welcoming industry in which all sorts of people can forge a successful career.
“Farmers tend to be quite conventional characters,” says Matt.
“But this stereotype can be very limiting for those of us who are not born that way.
“Agrespect is trying to promote positive stories from LGBT people who are leading successful lives in the farming world. There are still too many people who think either, ‘I’m a farmer so I can’t be gay’ or ‘I’m gay so I can’t be a farmer.’
“We want to make it possible for everyone in the farming industry to be open about their sexuality. “Your parents and neighbours might not throw a party about it when you tell them but, in time, it will be fine.”
Matt says until recently it was a subject almost unspoken of in agriculture. It was recent stories in the media about gay farmers, focussing on difficulties and depression, that fuelled his desire to start the project.
He says: “Being homosexual doesn’t make you unhappy. It is homophobia that makes you unhappy. We still see lots of homophobic comments on farming-related social media and prejudice like this is something the industry needs to tackle.
“As a white, middle class gay man, I am conscious that I belong to a fairly privileged minority. When it comes to ethnicity, gender and sexuality, attitudes in the farming industry need to change to catch up with the rest of society and we need to become more inclusive.”
Backing for the initiative has come from far and wide though, with Agrespect receiving the support of many well-known organisations and industry figures, such as the National Farmers Union, the CLA, NFYFC and DEFRA – and the Agrespect pledge was personally signed by Defra Secretary Michael Gove.
Matt says: “The farming industry needs creative and imaginative people to tackle the challenges of the new Agriculture Bill. To close the growing skills gap, we should be encouraging new young and dynamic people to consider farming as a career. This means we need to be more welcoming to wider society.
“The reality is the population is 50 per cent female, 15 percent non-white people and about 10 percent LGBT people. If we are only targeting straight, white men, we are not giving ourselves a very big pool to choose from, are we?”
In August, Agrespect will be taking part in the Brighton Pride Parade, along with a rainbow-emblazoned tractor provided by Massey Ferguson, one of the earliest Agrespect supporters.
“It might surprise people to see a tractor and a group of farmers at a Pride parade,” says Matt, slightly in jest but, the fact is, this could be a turning point to show how inclusive the industry can be.
“Agrespect is saying, look at us, we’re progressive, we’re welcoming, this is a cool industry and we love working in it.
“It’s a two-way thing really. The general public will see farming as a fun, modern and relevant industry and we want farmers to see that it is fine to be a bit different, so long as you are good at what you do.”
As a father, Nick Hiscox, a mixed farmer from Somerset, never thought about anything other than trying to bring his three children up to be happy.
Which is why, perhaps, when his son, Ben, who was 20 at the time, told the family in 2012 he was gay, Nick was more worried about why his son hadn’t told him sooner.
“Straight away I thought, why hasn’t he told us?” says Nick.
“What was it that stopped him? Had he been worried? For me, as a parent, I needed to know. Ben simply said he knew he could tell me when he needed to.”
After documenting his own family’s story on Agrespect, Nick says he never thought about it in any depth – the fact that his son was gay simply, ‘was what it was’ and he wrote: “To be honest we didn’t give a second thought about Ben, Sam or Abbie being gay. Then again, we didn’t give any thought to them being straight – the idea these things have to be thought about or declared sort of baffles me a bit. I also don’t understand why vegans must declare they are vegans, but maybe that’s just me.”
But the reaction he received was somewhat of a surprise.
He says: “What I wasn’t expecting was the number of older people who contacted me, farmers in their 70s who have never revealed their sexuality to their family and friends. The first thing they say to me is that I’m never to mention their name.”
Ben and his partner, Camilo, are due to return to the farm in Somerset to get married and Nick feels the next generation are the ‘transition generation’. He believes his children and their friends look at these things differently.
Nick says: “We do need to be more welcoming and understanding and with Agrespect, we’re breaking a cycle.
“If Ben’s happy, that’s all that matters – he doesn’t go around the countryside shouting my dad’s a farmer and I’m gay. But I hope the day will come when it is no longer a topic that needs discussing and we live in a time where we don’t have to campaign for what is right.”