Rural diversity and inclusion in the spotlight at the OFC

Matthew Naylor

A joint Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) fringe event organised by The RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission and AgRespect, was held at the 2020 event prior to lockdown. At the event, over 150 delegates had an open debate about how farming and rural communities could become more embracing of diversity.

To support the need for rural diversity, the OFC is launching the session online, as part of its #OFCbitesize series.

The recording is of six powerful speakers, with their own powerful stories to tell, talking about a host of pertinent aspects of diversity and acceptance. They include a young gay woman who had considered suicide because she felt she couldn’t tell her parents about her sexuality.

Matt Naylor, the 2020 OFC Chairman, and founder of the Agrespect network, said that the OFC has a reputation for being middle-aged, grey and ‘gammon’, but that this fringe session demonstrated how far from reality this perception is today.

He emphasised the importance of the conversations the fringe encouraged, to ensure that rural communities become more tolerant and accepting of any differences.

He said: “Since I first joined the board of the OFC, I really wanted to start a conversation about how diversity is a positive thing. The best way to solve a problem is to look at it from as many perspectives as possible so we have tried hard to get representation from a lot of talented people who don’t fit the traditional mould of those in the farming industry.

“Many people feel you have to conform to a stereotype in order to fit into agriculture, this really isn’t true. I realised from my own experience that feeling able to be completely open about my sexuality has meant that I can contribute to the industry more authentically and to better effect. This was one of the main drivers for Agrespect, we wanted to show that agriculture can be a rewarding and welcoming career for everyone.”

Sue Prichard, Director of the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, added: “A divided and polarised society is getting in the way of tackling the critical issues in front of us – from the climate and nature crises to increasing mental and physical ill-health in communities. But we’re all at risk of feeling disconnected, whether through things like race or sexuality, or through feeling that you simply don’t ‘belong’ anymore…challenging prejudices, breaking down barriers, restoring empathy and compassion, these things matter now more than ever, and our speakers today have all shown how they are bringing the kind of leadership we need.

“Will Evans’s brilliant Rock & Roll Farming Podcast, Navaratnam Partheeban’s ground-breaking work with the British Veterinary Ethnicity and Diversity Society, the fabulous ‘She Who Dares Farms’ campaign - and simply telling our own stories with honesty and courage. It was so encouraging to hear delegates wanting to build on the inspirational work we have heard from the speakers – to speed up progress and spread it across the farming and rural sectors.”

Lydia Slack, an upland farmer’s daughter, gave a raw insight into her story. “I knew that I liked girls when I was 10 years old, but couldn’t imagine any way that I could live the life that I knew I wanted.”

She described how she had considered marrying a man, having children and ignoring him as well as committing suicide. Eventually, she told her Mum that she was gay, and is now engaged to her fiancé, Amelia; the couple now live on Lydia’s family farm and, together, they plan to take on a farm tenancy.

“Thinking back to when I was 10 years old, I could never have dreamed that I would be living the life that I am, and I owe a great debt of gratitude to Agrespect.

Bryony Gittins, a farmer from Wales spoke about being a woman farmer, she said: “I was so excited and delighted to have been on the opening panel at the Oxford Farming Conference, discussing important matters that affect us all.

“Knowing we are not alone, having strong role models, staying positive and making sure we keep smiling. Put these in your tool box and go do what you love. I love being a Farmer, and I am proud to be a female one.”

To watch the presentations, click HERE

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