Women have played a role in growing food for family and community for centuries. Although there have always been women in the fields, on the tractors and in the dairy barn, their voices have not always been heard. The role of women in the farming sector today has become a more public and more expansive one than was typical in previous generations.
Women’s Agricultural Network (WAgN)
“Our mission remains pretty much the same as when we started in 1994. We want to provide education and technical assistance for women starting and growing agricultural businesses, and we want to raise the profile of women in agriculture, to make them and their contributions more visible,” Mary Peabody, University of Vermont Extension, Community and Economic Development, said. “When I attend conferences and meetings around the country I see more women in attendance and, more importantly, I ‘hear’ women’s voices much more often than I did even 20 years ago.”
Hearing those voices – or rather not hearing them – was the reason Peabody and her colleagues initially surveyed women, to determine what barriers were preventing them from fully participating in agricultural education and technical assistance programs. From that, WAgN was born. Programming allowing women the opportunity to express their feelings and values in a conducive setting is a primary function of the WAgN mission.
Women don’t always approach decisions the same way that men do, and often are juggling different responsibilities, with different perspectives than men. Women in general are more risk averse, aren’t comfortable with debt and don’t have the same comfort level with equipment, Peabody said. These factors can keep female-run farms smaller and growing more slowly.
“I think that my colleagues – Extension educators, researchers and technical assistance providers – have all become more sensitized to the needs of women in the workplace and have improved how we deliver education to everyone. Women have a tendency to view issues very holistically. They are concerned with how decisions and policies impact families, communities, quality of life – not just the business’ bottom line. This makes for some complex decision-making,” Peabody said. “Having classes and workshops that were developed with women’s learning styles in mind and targeted to women has been very powerful.”
It isn’t only women farmers who benefit from WAgN. Women interested in agribusiness careers are often lacking in role models. Women serving on boards and commissions remain a minority. Although women receiving agricultural degrees is a common phenomenon, only a small portion of those graduates remain in agricultural careers a decade later, Peabody said.
Although some of the concerns of women working in agriculture have expanded, WagN remains a vital resource for new farmers, too, even as it evolves.
“When we started out, our core audience was looking at starting farm businesses,” she said. “Now, they are looking at pathways to exiting. How can they transfer the farm? Who will the next generation be? How do they plan for financial well-being? One of the most rewarding things that has started to happen to us is that we are seeing the daughters of our earlier members coming to us now. Meeting the needs of this second and third generation of women farmers will keep us busy and grow our approach.”
Lakeview Organic Grain
For those well-versed in the organic grain, dairy or sustainable agriculture community, Mary-Howell Martens, of Penn Yan, New York, is an often-heard voice and advocate on everything from day-to-day challenges on the farm, the many questions facing the organic movement today and the issues impacting food production and our food system in general. Along with husband Klaas (the Martens have three adult children all active in agricultural careers of their own, too), Mary-Howell has served as a mentor for those who do business with Lakeview Organic Grain, as well as those who benefit from the articles and formal presentations she and Klaas have made throughout the last several decades of owning their own certified organic farm and feedmill.
The Martens own two separate farm businesses. Lakeview Organic Grain is an organic feed mill and seed operation serving the Northeast, which is managed full time by Mary-Howell. The 1,600-acre organic grain and vegetable farm is managed by Klaas and their son Peter.
“My husband and son are extremely good farmers, much better at the hands-on farming than I am. They are better equipment operators (and) mechanics, and they are better at juggling the complexities of running a complex farm operation,” Martens said. “I am better at managing the routine daily operations of a business, better at keeping up with the things that must be done on time, better at customer relations and better at keeping track of the money. We don’t all need to be experts at everything, but in order for agricultural businesses to be successful, there must be the most talented people working at the different critical points to keep everything going.”
Although those roles are not gender-specific, Martens does believe that it is very easy for women in agriculture to become invisible.
“It is very easy for women – even highly talented and completely essential women – to become invisible in agriculture. It happens all the time, through words and actions of people who are totally unaware of what they are doing,” she said.
Although being unacknowledged is frustrating, Martens doesn’t believe that being a woman in agriculture impacts her role negatively, whether working at the mill or lending her expertise to others in the industry.
“As manager of Lakeview, I experience very few negative issues of being a woman, but I’ve also been doing this now for nearly 20 years. I manage 12 employees, a small fleet of trucks, a large supply of incoming grain and outgoing feed, the bills, the accounts receivable, the repairs, the logistics, the regulatory stuff,” she said.
Martens spends a generous amount of time sharing her knowledge, advising others on crop production, cover crops, weed management and dairy cow health. She describes it as operating “an underground organic extension service.” She also posts regularly on the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance O-Dairy ListServ.
“From the very start of our journey into organics, I have spent a lot of time writing articles on what we have learned. Both Klaas and I feel strongly that we need to share our knowledge, help others succeed, teach techniques and insights, be mentor and cheerleader, and put down in writing as much information as possible so others can use it to make their farms more viable,” Martens said.
Martens has seen real changes in outreach to women in agriculture over the past decades. Today, internships and training programs, plus hands-on training in tractor mechanics and other aspects of farming, are geared toward helping women learn to farm.
“I think that such support groups, especially for young people who do not come from farms, are a wonderful development,” she said. “I wish such had existed back when I was a young suburban kid who decided, out of the blue, that she wanted to farm.”
Martens also acknowledges the role Amish and Mennonite farm women are playing in the upstate New York region, where these families are revitalizing dying agricultural communities.
“Interestingly enough, for being a traditional society, a woman’s role on the typical Amish or Mennonite farm is far more equal, both in decision-making and actual work,” Martens said. “Family farms are truly the entire family, working together.”
Dairy Girl Network
Laura Daniels operates Heartwood Farm, along with husband Jared Searls, in Cobb, Wisconsin. Daniels is also the founder of the Dairy Girl Network, whose mission it is to connect women in dairy nationwide, providing support and community.
“Our first networking event was in 2013, one evening during the World Dairy Expo. It was just a brainstorm. I had to invite women who were from out of town to feel at home and meet with some of us who lived nearby,” Daniels explained. “The goals were simple: spread the word and then create a welcoming space where these talented women can connect. In many ways, these are still the foundations of the Dairy Girl Network.”
Daniels had no background in dairy farming but always wanted to be a dairy farmer.
“When I was young, I thought I’d have to marry a farmer. When that didn’t work out, I tucked my dream away,” Daniels said. “Then I met my husband, who was not a dairy farmer; however, his belief in me was enough for him to plunge with me as we bought our farm 12 years ago. I am the general manager of Heartwood Farm, and Jared is the best business partner I could ask for. We make big decisions together and he supports me as I lead our farm day to day.”
While growing up, Daniels only ever knew male farmers. But she did have a lot of female role models who demonstrated the qualities she would eventually need in order to embark upon her dairy farming dreams.
“They modeled for me kindness, true grit and chutzpah, all of which I have needed as I blazed my own trail,” she said.
The Dairy Girl Network focuses on inspiration, encouragement and motivation to help women to reach their goals. It isn’t about excluding males, or fighting for women’s role in dairy farming. Instead, it’s about recognizing the talents of women in the dairy industry and helping them to prepare for roles where they may be one of the only female representatives.
“We offer a place for women to learn along with and from many women just like them, with similar challenges and triumphs,” Daniels said. “It can be uncomfortable to be the only woman at a meeting or on a team.”
But it is the members who bring the energy and vitality to the organization, Daniels said. Without an energized and involved membership base, there is no purpose to the network.
Tami Smith is the Northeast ruminant business manager for Adisseo, holds a master’s degree in dairy nutrition, and lives and works on a Pennsylvania dairy farm. She discovered the Dairy Girl Network in 2015, and immediately became involved in organizing regional networking events. She is now on the board of directors.
“I have gone through some trying times during my career, especially because I didn’t have a farm background and moved across the country. I persevered, and now (find) myself among other women who had been in or were facing a similar situation,” Smith said. “Having a women-only group allows the members a forum to talk about women-specific topics without feeling judged.”
Renee Norman-Kenny, who farms with her husband on their western Pennsylvania dairy farm and values the ongoing social media networking that the Dairy Girl Network provides, is now its director of development. It was a position to which she aspired after following Daniels and her initial networking events via social media.
“This was my opportunity to work for a growing organization that not only was doing great things, but where I could truly believe in the mission and vision as a dairywoman myself,” she said. “Every day I get to work for dairywomen like myself to provide them opportunities that we need.”
Power and growth
Daniels, in forming the Dairy Girl Network, was seeking social connection with peers in the dairy industry. Based on the experiences of Smith, Norman-Kenny and the growing number of Dairy Girl Network participants, so are many other women working in the dairy industry – and in farming in general.
“Creating these learning networks and helping foster these relationships has done a great deal to support the growth of women farmers,” Peabody said. “Watching the growth of women farmers’ networks across the country has been great fun for us. Agriculture will continue to be at the forefront of some very important policy decisions in this country and women bring a very important perspective to the table. “
As the voice of women in agriculture grows stronger, so do the possibilities.
“Opportunities for women in agriculture continually change and improve, but not always where you expect them,” Martens, whose daughter is set to join the burgeoning ranks of female veterinarians, said. “This is a big step forward for good.”
Daniels, Martens and Peabody represent just a few of the outstanding women who help to create a vibrant agricultural community on a daily basis. These three “women in ag” have played – and continue to play – instrumental roles in adding volume and context to the communal voice of women working in agriculture. Whether past, present or future, women in agriculture have and will continue to make significant contributions.