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Tina Casey headshot

Pulling Back on DEI is Not That Simple

The retailer Tractor Supply recently dropped all diversity, equity and inclusion programs along with its decarbonization goals. The move may appease some critics, but it exposes the company to competition from other retailers that are seeking a share of the growing rural market.
By Tina Casey
Tractor Supply sign in a rural area — Tractor Supply ditches DEI

(Image credit: JJBers/Flickr)

Social media erupted in recent weeks after the leading retailer Tractor Supply Co. abruptly announced it is dropping all DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) programs and dispensing with its decarbonization goals. The announcement may appease some right-wing critics, but it exposes the company to competition from other retailers that are seeking a share of the growing rural market.

Tractor Supply Co. ditches DEI

When Tractor Supply announced the move on June 27, the company referenced feedback from customers who expressed disappointment in some of its civic initiatives, stating it has “taken this feedback to heart.” While affirming support for veterans and the outreach programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the company said it will not sponsor any more “nonbusiness activities" and specifically mentioned “pride festivals and voting campaigns.”

In addition, Tractor Supply pledged to eliminate its DEI positions and goals, replacing them with the neutral and ambiguous standard of ensuring a “respectful environment.”

The National Black Farmers Association claps back

Although Tractor Supply presented the announcement as a simple, straightforward solution to a customer relations problem, the response raises a complex web of issues rooted in the history of the United States and its agricultural industry.

First and foremost, the company’s very public, forceful pullback on DEI presents a jarring contrast to the current of conversation around the loss of Black-owned farms, including recent efforts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to address discriminatory loan policies that pushed Black farmers from their land in the 20th century. Industry peers like John Deere have also spoken up about it

The National Black Farmers Association refocused attention to those issues on July 2 when it released a statement calling for the resignation of Tractor Supply President Hal Lawton.

National Black Farmers Association President John Boyd, who is also a shareholder and customer of Tractor Supply, said the retailer's announcement is “reflective of the ongoing racial tension and division in America.”

"This affects our 130,000 members, many of whom regularly shop at Tractor Supply,” Boyd added in the statement. “Having repeatedly attempted to discuss our concerns with Mr. Hal Lawton, I am now calling for his immediate resignation."

The Association also noted that Tractor Supply participates in “predominantly white farm shows and events while snubbing events and opportunities for Black farmers." It says the company “has never displayed a booth or sponsored an event or training opportunity for Black farmers, denying them the respect and dignity they deserve," and emphasized “this behavior is reflective of the widespread disdain that still exists in the agricultural industries toward people of color."

Partners in youth agriculture and veterans services continue to support DEI

The decision also places Tractor Supply at odds with the very groups it claims to support. The nonprofit U.S. Vets, for example, is among the veterans advocacy organizations that recognize and speak about how diversity and inclusion programs address historical injustices that impact veterans’ employment and housing. U.S. Department of Defense officials also note that the pool of qualified recruits in the prime 18 to 24 age group is shrinking, making outreach go diverse communities vital to its future.

Future Farmers of America (FA) is one of the Agriculture Department's rural outreach programs that Tractor Supply still claims to support. However, as with the Defense Department, FFA recognizes that its future depends on connecting with historically excluded groups. Recent outreach efforts include a new, streamlined leadership and education pipeline in partnership with the DEI-centered organization Agriculture Future of America

The National 4-H Council, another Agriculture Department-affiliated group that Tractor Supply supports, is also in the process of reforming its past practices to align with the diverse demographic profile of 21st-century America and address the "widening opportunity gap affecting young people."

Leaving ground open for other retailers

Tractor Supply's move away from DEI also exposes the company to competition from other retailers in the rural U.S. markets it predominantly serves. Some farmers who oppose the company's decision told news outlets they plan to take their business elsewhere, and industry peers with strong DEI profiles may be well positioned to step in. 

Lowe’s, for example, opened 300 new stores in rural areas last year, which are designed around the appeal of one-stop shopping for rural customers. "We now expect that these stores will be a key component of our operating profit growth over the next three to five years," Lowe's CEO Marvin Ellison said during a 2023 earnings call, as cited by Business Insider

Business Insider reporter Ben Tobin also took note of the investment group Jeffries, which observed the "opportunity for market share shift as Lowe's takes a page out of Tractor Supply's playbook."

As for the page in the Tractor Supply playbook that revoked DEI policies, Lowe’s skipped that one. For example, last year Lowe’s launched a new outreach program that casts a wide, diversity-oriented net to fill gaps in construction industry workforce training. The company's internal inclusion policies contribute to regular appearances on the Great Places to Work list. 

Lowe’s EVP of human resources, Janice Dupré, also draws out the connection between bottom-line results and a strong DEI profile. She came to the retailer as its first chief diversity officer in 2017 following an extensive career that included work in finance and accounting at Dell, IBM and EY.

“Diversity is our greatest strength, and inclusion allows us to accomplish together what is impossible to achieve alone,” a statement from Dupré on the Lowe’s website reads. And that just about sums it up.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey