August 17, 2020

What do young women need to know about careers in ag?

By Nancy Appelquist, Director of Operations 

I have been fortunate in my own personal journey, especially as an “outsider” without a farming background, to enjoy a career full of positive experiences in agriculture. My career path brought me to ag 30 years ago and I’m still here today, grateful for the opportunities I’ve been awarded while serving an industry that is so meaningful to the world.

Women are a huge part of the talent pool we’re working hard to fill in the ag industry—in fact, we wrote on this topic several months ago. The fact of the matter is we need women in leadership roles in ag businesses and organizations large and small, so we must remove barriers that prevent them from pursuing successful career paths. It’s crucial we’re not overlooking, diminishing, or turning off any segment of candidate, because having diverse perspectives from a broad pool is our best shot for fighting our way through the challenges ahead.

What can businesses do to encourage and empower women and create a more welcoming and productive environment for them?

Last fall I had the privilege of visiting with Joy O’Shaughnessy, event director and chief operating officer with HighQuest Partners. She is the leader of the Women in Agribusiness series of conferences that create a networking forum for forward-thinking, professional women seeking industry insight and professional development opportunities. I gleaned some excellent insight from her remarks about what companies—and really, we as an entire industry—must do to support women:

Review your hiring practices—One of Joy’s points was that managers’ natural inclination is to hire people who are like them, and since farming has traditionally been a male pursuit we don’t always automatically picture females in those roles (whether that’s on the farm operation or in the businesses that support them). It takes a conscious effort to look beyond your own biases and comfort zones. We need more women at senior levels in core competencies—don’t just “count heads” to hire more women; be sure you’re hiring women in roles that are central to the mission.

Check the tone of your work environment—What is it saying to women?  Maybe you have no problem hiring women, but you have a hard time keeping them—does that signal a culture problem? Are there outside factors that make the day-in, day-out more difficult for a female? If it’s different than the rest of the team, then you need to make adjustments. Look inside your business—do you have a reputation for being a place women want to work? Ag businesses aren’t exempt from the “rules” just because they’re not in the mainstream.

Set the right example with your own actions—Don’t participate in disrespectful behavior, even if it feels harmless and was tolerated in the past at your company, and even if you’re just a bystander. Instead, be an advocate for women. Women do a pretty good job standing up for each other, but we need men in the industry to step up and be advocates as well.

What We Should Tell Young Women

As an industry, we can work to spread the word to young women and girls and get them excited about a future in our industry, whether that’s on the farm or in some capacity that serves farming. We talked with two women growers who shed some light on the topic.

You don’t have to be a born-and-raised farm girl to make a career of it.

“If you’re interested in ag, get some hands-on experience, whether that’s after school or during the summer,” said Katie Hatlelid, who farms in Montana. “Develop relationships with someone you could work with down the line – their kids may not want to take over – there is lots of opportunity out there. Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation and get to know local growers.”

You really can do anything you want.

Faith Kemme, who operates a farm in central Illinois, said, “Female growers have a way of thinking beyond traditional farming—maybe pursuing specialty niche crops. That’s one great way to get into farming if you want to be a grower.”

Always be eager to learn new things.

“Continuously educate yourself,” Kemme said. “Take advantage of any learning opportunity in front of you, because that’s what will keep you growing.” There’s so much opportunity in ag, and if you look around it’s easy to find.

Be brave and keep speaking up.

Hatlelid said, “Always go in prepared with a list and know what to ask for. This is a rule of thumb for me, and I’ve never been dismissed.”

“Be ready to work harder than your peers and sacrifice a lot,” Kemme said. But it’s definitely worth it.

Above all, as an industry we need to be sure we’re creating a welcoming environment for future women leaders in ag. And our industry deserves the best and brightest to lead the way, regardless of age, gender, race, or whatever the demographic label. If we aren’t hospitable to everyone, we’ll risk missing out on the best people.

Read part one of this feature on the important role of women in agriculture titled, Who Says Farming is Only a Man's Job?

We would love to hear about your company’s experiences and winning strategies for supporting women. Contact Nancy Appelquist at 845.544.1985 or nappelquist@entira.net.