Women are still a minority in farming but they can — and should — play a leading role.
That was a recurring theme at this year’s Advancing Women Conference, where attendees were told their leadership and communication skills are badly needed.
“Women’s voices are needed, that’s my underlying message — your hard work, your commitment, your dedication, whether you’re in an office or in the field, no matter where you are in the value chain,” said Krysta Harden, who has been a deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and chief of staff to former ag secretary Tom Vilsack.
Although Harden, who grew up on a peanut farm in Georgia, became a top power broker in Washington, she said women can influence the future of agriculture in a variety of roles.
She highlighted the power of effective communication. People may not remember the exact words you used, but will never forget how a compelling story made them feel. And there is real power in agriculture’s story when properly told, she said.
“It’s not for the pay, it’s not for the glory — it’s for the sheer love of it,” said Harden, now public policy and chief sustainability officer with DuPont.
“How do we tell that story? That’s the story that no one does better than women.”
That’s especially important when connecting with today’s consumers, she added.
“When the consuming public — who doesn’t understand what we do on the farm or ranch, and who doesn’t understand your role in agribusiness — when they see your face, and you talk about your family and your kids and your worries, they perk up. They want to know more.”
Harden urged her audience to speak up, whether that’s at the kitchen table, in a boardroom, or at a meeting of a community group.
“This is not about taking away voices or diminishing our enlightened male colleagues,” she said. “It’s about adding your chair. Adding your voice to it. Adding your understanding of things.”
That’s exactly what one of Canada’s best-known farm leaders did a decade and a half ago — although taking that plunge was daunting, said Cherilyn Nagel.
“I admit that there were times on my journey when I felt intimidated,” said Nagel, who began by volunteering and serving on boards like the Grain Growers of Canada and the Western Canadian Wheat Growers.
“I felt inadequate, and I felt inexperienced. I was 22 and had never sat on a formal board before.”
In 2004, Nagel became the first female president of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association and a leading advocate of ending the monopoly of the Canadian Wheat Board.
“I wasn’t an expert on wheat markets, but I had a passion to make a change,” she said.
She urged conference attendees to trust in their ability to make a difference.
“Many of you have been asked to let your name stand for election on a board, and are interested in getting involved in a particular issue, but you haven’t done it yet,” she said. “Maybe that’s because you feel inadequate or inexperienced — don’t let that stop you.”
She said she soon learned that her young male colleagues also felt as inadequate, intimidated, and inexperienced as she did. She also discovered how to overcome those fears.
“The best way to overcome intimidation is to know your stuff,” said Nagel, who farms near Mossbank, Sask. “Learn the files and surround yourself with men and women who can help you navigate. Knowledge and networking will give you the confidence to assert yourself, but only time will give you experience.”
In addition to being a director of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers, Nagel also works with Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan to raise awareness and appreciation of agriculture.
Farmers need to be leading that effort, said Harden.
“What’s so special about our industry — and different than so many others — is that it is based on your passion and your commitment,” she said. “Your love of the land. Your commitment for caring for or feeding others.
“Whether you’re a small shareholder farmer in southern Africa or a large commercial farmer in Canada, the things you have in common are what make this industry strong.”
She then challenged attendees to “make sure you help each other.”
“Women have to help women. You’ve got to have each other’s back,” Harden said to applause from the room.
“Think about who you can help, who you can be there for, who you can support, who you encourage to say, ‘Ride with me to this meeting’ so you won’t be the lone voice.”
Helping other women can mean taking the time to teach, showing that you care, and hiring or promoting them, she added.
“It’s making sure you help each other because your voice is needed. It’s demanded. It is required at this point to tell that story about who we are as an industry, who we are as a people, and the difference that we make, either here or around the world.”