Growing up on her family's farm near Amity, Ore., in the Mid-Willamette Valley, Lauren Ruddenklau said she struggled for years to reconcile the agriculture community with who she was.

Ruddenklau, 21, is a lesbian. While her parents accept and support her, she was not always sure if other traditionally minded farmers and ranchers would be as supportive. 

"I think there is a very heavy stereotype about what the usual farmer is, and what he believes," Ruddenklau said. "I think that sort of mentality is very hard on kids who don't fit that image growing up."

A few years ago, Ruddenklau's mother, Helle, learned about the Cultivating Change Foundation, a nonprofit organization advocating for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inclusion in agriculture. Lauren signed up to attend the second annual Cultivating Change Summit in Sacramento, Calif., which included more than 200 industry leaders, educators and LGBT allies.

The experience helped Ruddenklau decide she wanted a career in agriculture, knowing she could feel secure just being herself.

"Being able to find a place within the agriculture community has been very important for the development of me as a lesbian, knowing I can merge those two parts of myself," she said.

The Cultivating Change Foundation started in 2015, and has deep roots in Oregon. The group held its third annual reception Feb. 15 in Portland — not to be confused with the national summit, which is scheduled this year for June 19-21 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Kirk Maag, an attorney with the law firm Stoel Rives LLP in Portland, serves on the Cultivating Change Foundation's board of directors. He helped to organize the local gathering, which included prominent leaders such as Alexis Taylor, director of the state Department of Agriculture; Peter Daugherty, Oregon State Forester; and Alan Sams, dean of the Oregon State University College of Agricultural Sciences.

Maag said he is excited to see leaders in the agriculture and forest products industries coming together to send a strong message of diversity and inclusion.

"I believe that every young person who is passionate about the agriculture and forest products industries should feel welcome, regardless of his or her sexual orientation," Maag said.

Cultivating Change traces its history back to smaller, informal support group of gay men from across the country who met via the Facebook social media site, united by their agricultural backgrounds and feelings of isolation.

One of those men was Kristopher Elliott, a former high school agriculture teacher and FFA instructor from rural California who now leads the Oregon Outdoor School Program through OSU Extension.

Some folks did not feel they could be their true, authentic selves in the workplace, Elliott said. At the same time, agricultural industries are starving for new blood, especially as the average age of American farmers nears 60, according to the USDA Census of Agriculture.

"We need everyone from all aspects of the industry to get involved and stay involved," Elliott said.

Elliott played a role in helping the foundation go public. Cultivating Change held its first summit in Atlanta in 2015, and since then Elliott said he has been encouraged by how much support they have received in all fields of farming and forestry.

"The industry wants to be better. It wants to be inclusive, and it wants to be a safe place for all employees, including LGBTQ employees," Elliott said. "They can be themselves at work. That business or organization can then tap into their true talents that they can offer as well."

In a statement, Taylor, the Oregon Department of Agriculture director, said it is crucial for the agriculture community to be aware of the value LGBT individuals can bring to the workplace.

Daugherty, the Oregon state forester, added that "while as leaders we don't always agree on policy, it is really inspiring to see that we can agree on creating positive change for LGBT individuals who are passionate about agriculture and forestry."

Ruddenklau plans to transfer to OSU in the fall where she will pursue an undergraduate certificate studying food in culture and social justice. Her goal is to eventually take an active role in helping other LGBT youth realize they, too, have a place in agriculture.

"It can be hard to look to the future when you're so scared," Ruddenklau said. "That's what I would love to do professionally, is make sure people know that if that's what they love to do, that's where they can go."

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