CLEMSON — Diversity in agriculture had been on Sara Webb’s mind as she pursued service in AmeriCorps, study abroad and graduate coursework at Clemson University, but she never imagined it would lead to any sort of recognition.

Sara Webb with certificate

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue presents a certificate of appreciation to Outlook Forum Student Diversity Program winner Sara Webb, a Clemson University master’s student in Agricultural Education, in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 20.
Image Credit: Lance Cheung/USDA

So when the master’s student received an email about the United States Department of Agriculture Student Diversity Program, she saw it as an opportunity to delve deeper into a subject that interested her and share her interests with a wider audience.

Webb’s essay on the role of education in addressing inclusion and diversity in the agriculture sector earned her a place among 10 graduate students nationwide, plus 20 undergraduates, as USDA Student Diversity Program winners at the USDA’s 2018 Agricultural Outlook Forum.

This was the 94th annual Agricultural Outlook Forum, which provided producers, policymakers, business, government and industry leaders a unique opportunity to meet, exchange ideas and discuss timely issues at the forefront of American agriculture.

The forum, the USDA’s largest annual meeting, took place Feb. 22-23 in Arlington, Virginia, and the 30 winners received a weeklong trip to Washington, D.C., that was capped off by the forum.

“I was honored to represent Clemson,” Webb said. “I had only been to D.C. once before, so it was exciting to visit again and meet other students who are involved in agriculture.”

A master’s student in agricultural education from Greenville, Webb earned her undergraduate degree in biological sciences from Clemson’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences in 2014.

“We are very pleased that Sara was chosen as one of the 10 graduate students in the country to participate in this impactful conference,” said Jean Bertrand, the college’s associate dean for undergraduate studies. “Sara cares deeply about educating the next generation of agricultural scientists and this forum gave her the tools needed to be a force of change. We are very proud of Sara and her outstanding representation of Clemson University. She has a very bright future.”

While in her first semester of graduate school, Webb was encouraged by Kevin Layfield, associate professor of agricultural sciences, to dig deeper on the issue of inclusion and equity in agriculture as part of a class project.

For the USDA Student Diversity Program, graduate students were asked to write an essay on the biggest challenge facing agriculture over the next five years, which she couldn’t help but correlate with the coursework she was already doing.

“When I go to the farmer’s market or I look around in the classroom, I just don’t see a lot of diversity,” she said. “I see a lot of people who look a lot like me. I was doing research and learned about how history and current events affect how minorities and underrepresented audiences, such as women, view agriculture. There are a lot of factors that can influence the perception of agriculture and the choice to pursue agriculture as a career.”

Webb’s essay cited data from the 2012 U.S. Agricultural Census that showed 95 percent of principal farm operators are white and 86 percent of those operators are male. The U.S. Census Bureau, however, predicts that by 2044 that more than half of Americans will belong to a minority group (any group other than white, non-Hispanic); by 2060 the foreign-born population is estimated to increase by 85 percent, from 42 million to 78 million.

“I think as the United States becomes more diverse and we have more immigration, we need to start finding ways to incorporate minorities and underrepresented audiences in the agricultural sector,” Webb said.

As for the future beyond Clemson, Webb is interested in ways that agriculture can be a tool for community development.

“The way agriculture influences every culture and community is different,” she said. “I’m interested in how agriculture is part of this bigger picture of cultural identity.”

In the future, Webb said she would encourage more students to apply for the USDA Student Diversity Program.

“The USDA Student Diversity Program provided me the opportunity to meet government officials, policymakers, industry leaders and fellow students,” she said. “I enjoyed learning and exchanging ideas about current and future goals, trends and issues within the U.S. agricultural system.”