I manage our family farm in the Texas Panhandle where we grow wheat and cotton. Our father didn’t think my sister and I would want to keep it after he passed, but as a business, it makes a lot of sense. Of course, his generation thought we wouldn’t want to run it because, well, what do girls know about ag? But as a woman who knows a fair amount about business, I wondered why we wouldn’t want to.
We’ve proved him wrong postmortum. but as I’ve come to realize that the entire ag industry has some challenges. As a culture, much of farming is tied to the rural life. Hard work, dedication, optimism, and taking care of your family equates “success.” And while I have no problem bootstrap self-sufficiency, I have come to have some major problems with how the industry treats — and discounts — women. Much agriculture around the world is driven by women, and even in hidebound agriculture traditions like winemaking in France, winemakers are seeing daughters as equally potential successors as their sons. So why aren’t more women recognized in American ag?
The other morning, a roundup email from Farm Journal’s Ag Pro publication caught my eye. It was a guest commentary from Mike Kunst from ag consulting Entira titled “Ag’s Talent Pool is Running Dry.” In it, he details ways that farmers can reach out young people to get them thinking about a career in ag early.
I don’t respond to columns very often, but this one merited a response because he ignores the biggest problem Ag has for future talent pools: Their failure to recruit, welcome, and work with women in equal positions as men. Here’s my letter:
I am a farm owner, a native of the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles, a now city-dweller, and a communications professional. While your article offered some good practical tips for recruiting ag talent before the talent pool runs dry, it failed to address one of the biggest problems facing ag today — a failure to welcome women into the business.
I’ve worked professionally all over the US, and honestly, never much thought about playing the woman card. I’ve been treated the same regardless of gender in the publishing world. However, when I took over our family farming business after my father passed away, I was very keenly aware of being an outsider, even though I’d grown up in Guymon, Oklahoma. As I’ve spent the last five years re-learning the business, working with partners and supplies, and managing tenants, I’ve become keenly aware of a major challenge in agriculture: This industry has a real problem recruiting and retaining women.
We all know successful women in ag, but in rural areas, women who succeed as business owners, farm owners/managers, and professional leaders, often do so in spite of the men around them, not because of them. I’ve seen women sales reps treated in ways that would lead to legal charges in other industries. I’ve seen women who run businesses have to work through their husbands. I’ve seen harassment, discrimination, and just plain prejudice against women farm owners and managers in the rural world.
Ag communications organizations contribute to the problem. Too often, they feel their readers don’t want to hear voices that might encourage change. And while new generations will bring new attitudes and ideas to the industry, the change has to come from within. In offering practical recruiting tips, I feel you missed the mark in leaving out this important point. Ag companies, rural farmers, and colleges need to be educating the industry on the need to recruit women, minorities, and yes, even city kids and other outsiders to continue to feed the world.
Ag’s talent pool is indeed running dry, so I’d ask you to add at least one more practical tip to your column. Encourage women in high school and college to get into the business. Bring them up in the business as successors just like you would your sons. Consider them to have equal weight when in college recruiting. Women can be agronomists, ag sales reps, marketers, and yes, even day-to-day farmers but they need to be welcomed in just as men are. They can write columns and offer voices on more than just home economics and how to feed a crowd during harvest. Women can fix combines, drive fences, and vaccinate cattle. They can offer educated opinions on land management and commodities pricing.
The change has to come from voices like yours acknowledging the challenges the industry faces. Make sure you’re helping us all overcome the challenges before the talent pool truly does run dry.
PS. Mr. Kunst sent a kind reply and agreed it was a huge omission. He promises more to come on the topic in the future.