No more ‘good ol’ boy’ network
By KAREN SCHWALLER
They’re seen in more and more places – at the heads of classrooms, at agri-businesses, buying land and taking it a step further and operating that land.
Following the farm crisis of the 1980s, women have filled more agri-job positions and have educated themselves in the field of agriculture.
That fact is backed by both the 2007 USDA census of agriculture and from observations regarding women enrollment in agriculture-related classes at Iowa State University.
Tom Polito, director of student services at ISU’s College of Ag and Life Sciences, said he’s been at ISU for 35 years and has seen a shift in gender when it comes to enrollment in classes at that branch of the college.
According to Polito, it saw its student population grow to 20 percent women in the mid-1980s. It was in the 10 percent range during the 1970s.
Last fall the number of women enrolled there was at 47 percent out of 3,900 total students – a record number of ag students at ISU. Women enrollment in that college has hovered around the 47 percent mark for the last several years.
“The first number of years here (ag classes were) male-dominated,” Polito said. “No question about it.
“When I was here myself as an undergrad student, 2 percent of the classes were women.”
He said that all changed in the late 1980s, as more women needed to go to work after the farm crisis.
“At the time the rural population was declining and farmers were getting older,” he said. “There weren’t as many kids on farms.
“At the time I wondered why we were seeing an increase when it wasn’t looking like the traditional students were there.”
It came down to women enrolling in ag classes.
“What was happening is that agriculture was doubling its human resources base,” he said. “Women discovered agriculture.”
He added that modernization helped make agriculture seem more attractive to women.
“The most increase we had seen at a time was in the late 1980s and 1990s, and it continues to increase today,” Polito said. “Our male numbers are flat.”
The animal science major there has the largest percentage of women enrolled, according to Polito. Other popular majors for all students, but especially for women, include agronomy, ag studies, ag education and ag business.
Women graduates are taking that knowledge out into the market place.
“People will hire the best candidate,” Polito said. “I don’t think gender is an issue anymore as far as opportunity out there.
“There’s no reason why young women shouldn’t come into the college because they’re just as capable as men.”
Polito cited an event at the ag science college a few years ago, where all of the leaders at the college that were on stage, including the dean, were women.
“The breakthrough came 10 or 15 years ago,” he said. “Ag careers used to be dominated by men, but today women in ag leadership roles is the norm.”
Polito said women bring many skills to the ag arena, including good communication skills. That’s something that industry leaders are looking for, according to Mike Gaul, director of Career Services at ISU’s ag college.
He said there are three main things companies look for in terms of finding the right employee – an ag background, communication skills and leadership abilities.
“Communication skills are essential,” said Gaul. “There are jobs out there for people who can effectively communicate with other people verbally, in written form and with good listening skills.”
ISU has a female ag sorority called Sigma Alpha, which he said gives young women a leg up. It’s more of an elite group, Gaul said, with young women applying for membership and being selected by a committee, based on their backgrounds and leadership skills.
“You don’t just ‘get in’ to that sorority,” he said. “They’re a notch above the others because their leadership skills become a huge drawing card.”
“Those young women have it all going for them.”
Gaul said ag careers are exploding for both genders, but especially for women. He said it’s refreshing for him to see his female students come into his office saying she has two or three offers and doesn’t know which one to take.
“It’s really not a good old boy network anymore,” he said.
Peter Bixel, SciMax team leader for MaxYield Cooperative, based out of Britt, said he has two women on his staff of specialists and that they do the job well.
“They’re outgoing with great personalities,” he said, adding that personality is big when working with farmers on their livelihoods.
“I find that they are detail-oriented and very organized. Follow-through with customers is a big one, and they will do that. They’re good listeners.”
SciMax solutions specialists work with producers on managing their information, analyzing what worked and what didn’t work, what to do different next year, and can compile maps and data for farmers to use when deciding what to do the following year to make their operation more productive.
He said he sees the women on his staff as capable and knowledgeable.
Bixel said he doesn’t see as many middle-aged women involved in agriculture-related jobs, but said he’s happy to see the interest growing among young women.
“For some women,” Gaul said, “they may have grown up on a farm and have a good ag background, but they might not be able to come back home to farm.
“This is a way they can still be involved.
“They can do it with seed, chemicals or whatever they are interested in. And I think farmers often do gravitate towards women.
“They can joke around with them easily.”
By the numbers
The 2007 Census of Agriculture shows that more than 30 percent (or more than one million) of U.S. farm operators are women, and that women have a growing presence in U.S. agriculture.
They show that women are running more farms and ranches, operating more land and producing a greater value of agricultural products than they were five years ago.
Statistics there go on to show that the total number of women operators increased 19 percent from 2002, significantly surpassing the 7 percent increase in the number of farmers overall.
Women are the principal operators of 14 percent of the nation’s 2.2 million farms, the statistics showed.
States with the highest percentage of female principal farm operators include (in descending order) Arizona, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine and Alaska.
In Iowa, census figures showed that anywhere from 10 to 14 percent of farms had females as their principal operators, far behind the states listed above.
Women farm operators across the U.S. tended to have smaller farms in terms of size and sales, but are more likely to own the farmland they operate, according to the USDA census.
Figures show that the average size of farm is 418 acres, and that male-operated farms averaged 452 acres, while women operated farms closer to 210 acres.
Approximately 66 percent of males own all of their farm acres, compared to 85 percent of women farm owners.
Women farm operators average around $36,440 in sales value, compared to $150,671 in sales values of their male counterparts.
The census showed that the average age of women farm operators tended to be slightly older at 58.8, compared to men at 56.8.
And finally, census figures show that women farm operators tend to produce more vegetables, fruits and nuts, tobacco, cotton, poultry and eggs, sheep and goats.
Male-operated farms produced more grain and oilseed, along with beef cattle, cattle feedlots, dairy, hogs and pigs.
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