Diversity of Ideas

Last evening, I made a few remarks about diversity on our Research & Promotion Boards in conjunction with a USDA session on diversity. (Dd you know that there are 21 programs that we affectionately call “checkoffs” wherein food producers pool their dollars to do research and promotion?) From raspberries to watermelon to honey to soft lumber to beef to pork–these boards consist of volunteer producer leaders who direct the investment of their peers’ contributions. USDA gathered several of the board leaders (and a couple of staff) together for last night’s session, which gave many volunteer leaders from different agriculture backgrounds the opportunity to come together and discuss the meaning, culture and atmosphere surrounding diversity. I’ve noticed that words have different meanings and implications to different people. IMO, the best way to understand what someone else means by a certain word like “diversity” is to gather, listen and share. In fact, that’s one meaning of the word “diversity,” isn’t it–welcoming discussions and solutions fueled by myriad ideas, cultures and backgrounds.

I truly believe that two heads are better than one when it comes to vision and strategy. And two heads filled with different ideas, coming from different backgrounds and life experiences, are surely better than even 10 heads filled with exactly the same (or even highly similar) ideas. I’ve heard: if you cannot get something done with a committee of 25, then reduce the committee to 10. I unconditionally agree that fewer people often make decisions faster. However, despite our society’s love affair with hurry (hurry, hurry…ouch, that fleeting memory of orange in early February smarted for a moment), hustle and haste (or what I ironically call the ‘glorification of busy’), I submit that quality of decision matters a bit more than speed of decision. (Disclaimer: My advice is not all-encompassing. If you’re about to be hit by a monorail, then the speed with which you exit the track matters more than the quality or grace of your leap. Get off the rail! Gak!) As Tim Fargo said, “Progress and motion are not synonymous.” If, in our example, if you reduce the size of the committee simply to eliminate all who might not agree with you, your outcome (especially longer term) won’t hold up as well as if you welcome, and work to include, a diversity of ideas.

In short, diversity means different ideas, from differing voices, coming together to make a more dynamic, flexible and stronger end result. Diversity doesn’t mean (as USDA Deputy Secretary Harden pointed out last night) tokens or quotas.

Now that I’ve brought up hurry, hurry, (ouch…that smarted again…hopefully the memory will fade before next season) let’s talk about the first challenge I see to diversity on our boards, and that is time.

Service on the checkoff board takes time–traveling, attending meetings, reading business materials, participating in calls–it all takes time. Some R&P board officers may be away from home and business up to 200 days a year. More than 97 percent of farms are family owned, most of these family operated. On most farms, something critical happens every single day. By critical, I don’t mean it would be nice to get it done. (Like, ‘Yeah, we need to finish those TPS reports and reload the Swingline.’) On a farm, if it doesn’t get done, on time, something–be it plant or animal–could die.

Leaving the farm for a couple of days is tough. Heck, for our farmers and ranchers, leaving daylight hours to come inside and fire up your computer to participate in a conference call is tough. Truth is, time is a major challenge to getting a diversity of voices and ideas on our boards. Folks who serve often must use hired help, grown children or parents on the farm to cover for them when they’re gone. This limits those who can serve. I can tell you stories of board members I’ve worked with over the years, who have an interest in running for leadership positions, but they simply cannot spend the time away from their farms because they have nobody to help them with those everyday chores. My experience says that women have particular challenges in this area, because they may hold down both on-farm responsibilities and off-farm jobs, as well as manage most of the housework and child care. This limits their time even more severely.

At the Beef Board, one way we’ve tried to address the time challenge is through technology. We’ve incorporated our board communications and information into an online toolkit and blog so members may access information whenever, wherever. We’ve incorporated mobile technology into our sites. We’ve tried webinars rather than in-person meetings (frankly, with varying success…more on that in a minute). But these solutions themselves lead to another challenge, and that is technology access in rural areas.

I mentioned that we try to use advancing communications technology to help board members participate and fulfill their duties. However, lack of high-speed Internet access, as well as cell coverage in many rural areas, limits us severely. Smaller or disadvantaged farmers, or those who ranch in particularly remote areas, may not have adequate access. (Some of those folks I know only get snail mail a time or two a week!) One specific example: Last month, we put together a video detailing important consumer information in advance of our annual meeting. We thought we were giving board members an easier alternative to downloading, printing and reading paper versions. But, limited high-speed download and/or streaming capabilities prevented some board members from accessing or viewing the video. We continue to try webinars with 103 board members (and heroically refrain from strangling ourselves with our earbud cord in frustration through the burps, hiccups and slow slide refreshes–or is that just me?).

I realize that limited technology access is not a revelation to those with an interest in US rural development–many experts acknowledge this as a primary challenge to rural community health and growth in America. But technology also presents both a solution and a challenge to diversity of voices on our boards. It’s a national, as well as a very local, issue, and one that deserves increased attention federally. (Makes me wonder…if the Internet went out in Washington, DC, how long would it take federal government to make certain it came back online? Yet the issue of rural access drags on, and on…I’m allowed to opine here, remember, this is my blog!)

(Ahem. Brain. Focus.)

I’ve discussed both time and technology, and I’ll also discuss money. While the board reimburses members for direct expenses incurred while engaging in board business, we do not pay for lost opportunity costs while serving–like extra help needed on farm while folks are away, or lost income (or opportunity for income) from off-farm jobs. Also, I’ve heard some leaders say it’s difficult to comply with the documentation guidelines we require for reimbursement (like itemized receipts for meals, instead of simply a credit card receipt.) Leadership and staff tries to ease this situation–for example, we book and pay for hotels and airfares directly with an organizational account or credit card. When I’m with board members, I do my best to pay expenses and then handle reimbursement. However, we must remember that board members sometimes run a very tight ship–often with both time and budget constraints–and the documentation and wait time for reimbursement may be too much of a burden to bear. (A very special thank you to some of our board members, you know who you are, who choose to give not only service but don’t request reimbursement for their expenses…going above and way beyond.) Particularly the critical younger voices, (USDA data consistently show, not surprisingly, significantly higher debt-to-asset ratio for our younger farmers), so important to the future of agriculture and our board, or our disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, may have difficulty with the resources required to front the costs and request reimbursement.

Given these very real challenges, I’d like to say a loud and proud THANK YOU to the volunteers who serve on the Beef Board, and other volunteer R&P boards. It’s clear that your significant dedication and passion makes a huge difference for agriculture. I’m amazed and humbled by your service. (And now that I’ve re-read my post, I suspect your sense of dedication may even override your better judgment sometimes. Thank you especially for those crazy, wonderful, moments.)

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