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With minority scholarship, Normal man hopes to reshape agriculture industry to better reflect the people it feeds

Simran “Sim” Sandhu of Normal, who works at the Illinois Farm Bureau, has launched a scholarship to help drive more young people of color into the agriculture industry.
Simran “Sim” Sandhu of Normal, who works at the Illinois Farm Bureau, has launched a scholarship to help drive more young people of color into the agriculture industry.

You could say that Simran “Sim” Sandhu of Normal went into the family business, in a very roundabout way.

The 29-year-old grew up in Bloomington-Normal, the youngest of three. His parents were Indian immigrants who came to the U.S. in the early 1980s. Dad was an engineer, mom worked in healthcare. But their families, back in India, were farmers.

Sim visited them in India for the first time when he was 6. They were growing a little bit of everything.

“It wasn’t necessarily always to sell to get the income. It was just to sustain themselves and their household,” he said. “Our families were definitely more on the lower-income side of the spectrum. The stories I heard from my Dad were that the two occasions a year they got to eat meat, and they ate meat as a family, for 8 to 10 people, it was a pound.”

"Agriculture is not representative of the people it feeds. It’s not representative of our society."
Simran "Sim" Sandhu of Normal

Here in the U.S., Sim went to Illinois State University. He studied computer science and then economics. He never really expected to find a career in agriculture – an industry that skews older and white.

While still in college, a co-worker at Best Buy mentioned that the Bloomington-based Illinois Farm Bureau was looking for IT interns. Sim knew computers. He gave it a shot.

“Because the youngest in my family and the one that got to use (technology) most in our household made me our internal home ‘subject matter expert.’ And it just grew from there,” he said.

He’s been at the Farm Bureau now for 10 years. Sim says it's not been easy to be a minority in agriculture.

“From an appearance perspective, it was very fitting that a younger Indian individual happened to be in the IT department of all departments when they came inside this place,” Sim said, referring to his internship. “That’s not to say it’s a bad thing or was ever looked negatively upon, but there was definitely an association with that there. As far as an industry as whole, a lot of people in the hallways (here) probably don’t look like me. And very much so, agriculture is not representative of the people it feeds. It’s not representative of our society,” Sim said.

From climate change to global trade disruptions, the agriculture industry faces some daunting challenges in the coming decades. Solving those problems will be even harder if the industry can't attract a diverse workforce capable of thinking in new ways.

Sim says that's a problem. And it's one he sees firsthand as he's risen to become the Illinois Farm Bureau's manager of analytics and innovation, overseeing a research team and finding answers to big questions.

“Anytime you have more people from different backgrounds, differing perspectives, you get better ideas. With my role being so much focused on, ‘Hey, how do we do things differently?’ and ‘Let’s work smarter, not harder,’ those variety of ideas and perspectives and immensely valuable. It’s sometimes difficult to come about those. With agriculture really looking for people that had subject matter expertise or firsthand knowledge or experience, you’re not going to find those varying perspectives because of what the industry has been comprised of typically.”

Creating a scholarship

Sim’s parents – the immigrants who left behind roots in agriculture to provide greater opportunities for the next generation – they talked to their kids often about the importance of giving back.

“I could give you $100 if I had a nickel for every time my Dad told me about the $200 he had in his pocket when he came (to the U.S.) and the struggles he faced at that time,” said Sim, who is also a board member with the Bloomington-based Multicultural Leadership Institute.

So not yet 30 years old himself, Sim has started to think about the next Sim. He talked to the Illinois Farm Bureau and the IAA Foundation about setting up a scholarship to help a minority student find a career in agriculture.

And now, it's a reality. The first Sandhu Minority in Agriculture Scholarship will be awarded to students next fall. Sim said one of the most emotional parts is that his co-workers and friends have contributed their own money to help build up the fund beyond his own money.

Here's how Sim pictures the first recipients:

“It’s a person that probably has no familiarity with agriculture. That’s the demographic we’re looking for. A person who never thought this could be a field that would welcome them or that they could see opportunity in,” Sim said. “Most of our exposure to ag, especially in urban areas, is limited. You don’t think of how expansive it is, or all the corporations involved. It’s not just farmers or the folks supporting what’s coming off their operation. … How technology and innovation have changed the industry is that every single job type and role can have a place in agriculture now. Whatever you want to do, there’s a place in agriculture to find that passion too.

“My hope is that this (scholarship) helps folks that would have never considered ag to begin with to say, ‘Hey, I’ll give it a shot. There’s a person that might look like me that’s telling me they found success in this as well and they’ll support me in giving it a shot.’”

College students and high schoolers can apply for the scholarship starting in January.

Those looking to contribute to Sim's scholarship can contact the IAA Foundation.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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