August 17, 2020

What’s fueling the power surge for women in ag, and how do we keep it going?

By Nancy Appelquist, Director of Operations

The organizational structure at Wendte Farms may not be typical for how you picture a family farm operation. Here you will find the patriarch, his two sons-in-law and his daughter calling the shots.

Faith Kemme is one of the chief operators of her 6,000-acre family farm in Altamont, Ill., a role she says has been her destiny since she was a pre-teen cleaning out grain bins and learning to operate field equipment.

Kemme earned a B.S. in agribusiness and M.S. in agricultural production, both from the University of Illinois, and always intended to return to her family’s operation, even arranging her class schedule to allow the 85-mile trek between campus and home to help with planting and harvest.

“There’s so much pride that comes from being part of a family farm, being a piece of the puzzle that keeps it going,” Kemme said. “I want to keep the family farm going so my kids, nieces and nephews can farm it one day, if they choose that.”

A strong female influence is becoming far less atypical as a growing number of women are taking leadership and ownership roles in farm operations or finding their dream jobs elsewhere in agriculture. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, more women than ever are directly involved with day-to-day decision making on the farm. About 36 percent of U.S. farmers and ranchers are women, which was an increase from 31.5 percent in 2012; and that aligns with the growing trend of women leaders in agriculture organizations.

And if there’s not a woman there calling the shots, you can bet there’s a strong female in the background who’s influencing the performance of that farm.

Up to the Challenge

Women are pursuing and excelling in careers traditionally held by men, and the industry is reaping the benefits of the unique perspectives women bring to the table—whether that “table” is in a board room, retail office, or a planter out in a soybean field.

Lauren Liggett is a strategic account manager for MKC, covering the Rice County area in central Kansas. She also farms with her husband and father—mostly cattle, plus row crops and wheat. Recently she and her husband added sheep and goats, primarily to support 4-H and other local programs.

“I’m really involved on the farm…probably more involved than my dad would like, because he still likes to make the decisions!” Liggett said. She makes seed and chemical recommendations for their operation—useful insight to drive decisions. “It’s what I do every day with my customers so of course I can’t help but interject what I think we should be doing on our farm.”

It really is a great time for women in agriculture. Women are proving daughters can carry on the family farm legacy just as well as any son.

Katie Hatlelid is a grower with Hatlelid Farm in central Montana. She loves the freedom and openness of the farm lifestyle, being embedded in the community and having the chance to make an imprint on agriculture in her region. She’s also the county extension agent, and the dual role means she’s a credible ag voice in her community.

Running the family farm in the rural Montana community where she grew up means Hatlelid knows everyone she does business with. She said, “People don’t treat me any differently because I’m a woman—I do everything other farmers do, and people know me and they know my dad, so they know they can trust me.”

“All of us in the ag industry, men and women alike, face the same pressures that come with the territory, and now women are driving decisions just as much as men,” Hatlelid said. “Markets are the hardest part – wheat is down, so you need to pencil things out before making decisions. One of the biggest pressures is the concern over glyphosate, GMOs and the public perception and misinformation that’s out there.”

In other words, being a woman in a man’s world is the least of her worries.

Juggling Multiple Roles

In a way, farming is one industry that is well-suited to blending lines between work and real life.

“Many female farmers have a family and home to take care of on top of the farm operation and business. The challenge is allowing adequate time to take care of all three,” Kemme said. “You accept that it’s just part of it. As long as it’s safe, I can take my kids to work every day.”

Kemme was driving a semi for harvest the day before her son was born, and the same with her daughter—and she continued working after. “Lucky for auto-guidance I guess!”

I don’t think anyone can argue that women have a lot on their plates; but we shouldn’t disregard or lose sight of those qualities that are unique to women. For example, women are known for being  strong communicators, and they have an ability to bring positive and encouraging perspective to a really tough environment.

“We all want to be that strong, powerful woman, but it’s important to stay in tune with those natural characteristics that differentiate women from men—as nurturers and encouragers,” Liggett said.

Indeed, those are powerful traits, too, and they’re just what we need to face the challenges that lie ahead.

Gender aside, any job in agriculture is not for the faint of heart, and Liggett said it would be easy for people to want to step away from it. “It’s challenging and it’s a mental game, and you don’t realize it until you’re in it. When you’re looking at $4 wheat and $3 corn and the economy is down, it’s easy to be discouraged and just want out. It takes drive and resilience to stick with it.”

Women are thriving on the farm and in other ag leadership roles, and there are plenty of reasons for that.

For starters, technology advancements make it easier for women to take on additional roles. Kemme said, “With all the automation today and other developments, women now are more physically able to do things they may not have been able to do before.”

Also, women no longer are being discounted in what has traditionally been a male-dominated industry.

“Women are being taken more seriously in ag because they’re taking responsibility to pursue an education in agriculture, then continuing to learn—taking those steps so they can have knowledgeable conversations with their male counterparts,” Kemme said.

And this is the big one—the threshold for behavior toward women has changed. The #metoo movement sparked important conversations and ushered in new rules…including zero tolerance for indiscretions that were ignored for decades. Things that were laughed off and tolerated wouldn’t be today, and people are reflecting on how their words and actions could be disrespectful—even if that was never their intent. While we still have improvements to make, I believe we’ve made progress in creating a more positive environment for women in the industry.

“I would say in 90% of the meetings I walk into, I’m the only woman,” Liggett said, but she doesn’t let herself be the odd one out. “At times maybe, when I have the chance to work with a new farm customer, they may be  hesitant to start—but I don’t necessarily think that’s because I’m a woman, it’s because it’s a new relationship and I have to prove myself. I reassure them that if I make a mistake, that’s on me. They learn to treat me like anyone else.”

So, what can businesses do to encourage and empower women and create a more welcoming and productive environment for them? Read part two of this feature, Making Ag an Industry Women Want to be Part of.

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.