Talent trumps gender in today’s agriculture

Josie Van Lent says young women see the opportunities in agriculture and are reaching out to seize them

Josie Van Lent was “purposely naive” when she began her agriculture career more than 30 years ago.

“There were times when the fact that I was female was probably less appreciated, but I was too stupid to see that,” Lakeland College’s dean of agriculture says with a laugh.

“Definitely people would react to the fact that I was a woman in the job, but I never took that personally.

“You have to sort out what is a legitimate discrimination and what is really simply a reaction to something different.”

While those times were few and far between, there has been a sea change in attitudes since then, and Van Lent says she sees it every day at her college. Women make up half of its 7,500-student enrolment at its two campuses in Vermilion and Lloydminster. Those entering its agricultural programs expect to be judged on their abilities — and expect to excel.

“The young women coming into agriculture today have more confidence,” she says. “A lot of them are quite skilled and come in as equals to our male students. There isn’t anything they can’t do.

“If they’re from farms, the expectation is that they will learn and do what the guys are doing on farms. I don’t think that was the case even 15 years ago.”

Male students also have a different attitude and their understanding of equality is “refreshing,” she says.

“Our male students expect our female students to do the same things they’re doing, and our female students don’t see why they shouldn’t be.”

Even though she grew up on a farm and obtained her degree in agriculture at the University of Alberta, Van Lent never really thought her future lay in that direction. The plan was to get a law degree. However, when her undergrad days ended, she decided that “law school wasn’t going to come until I made some money.”

But what was to be a short stint with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development ended up lasting 15 years.

“I feel like I absolutely hit my sweet spot,” she says. “I can honestly say that there’s been very, very few days that I have not wanted to get up and go to work in my career. And I feel really privileged about that.”

Van Lent first worked as a district agriculturalist and then as a livestock specialist.

“I really loved being on farms and involved at the grassroots level, whether it was with livestock or crops.”

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A startup crop services company near Vermilion approached Van Lent about helping to build their agronomy program — an opportunity that gave her experience in “the business side of things.”

“We were small and lean and mean,” she says. “We slept in the office sometimes to make sure that fertilizer trucks got out to farms at 2 in the morning when the season was really pressured — whatever it took.”

She then worked for UFA, managing its crop inputs division in northeastern Alberta for two years before Lakeland College approached her seven years ago.

“They typically don’t hire from industry,” she says. “They took a bit of a gamble on me.”

At the time, the college wanted to create stronger ties between its agriculture programs and the industry, and with Van Lent at the helm, the college did just that, completing a comprehensive review of its programs “to make sure they were aligned with what industry needed.”

“In some cases, some things stayed the same, and in other cases, we needed to make some changes.”

She also found that the culture had changed since her university days. Today, female students seek out leadership roles within their classes and coursework — and that’s a significant shift.

“When I was in university, I think some of us would hold back a little bit. If there was a lab where we would be handling an animal, we might not be the first to step up to the plate. Here, they’re quite confident.”

Van Lent points to two factors driving this change.

First, young women are beginning to see opportunities in agriculture and taking advantage of them.

Second, talent counts.

“It’s less of a gender thing than it is about who’s the best person to do the job,” says Van Lent.

“The people I’ve worked with in the ag industry — whether it’s producers or colleagues or peers — have high expectations, but those expectations are there whether you’re male or female.

“No matter who you are — male or female — if you are interested in something and passionate about it, you should have that opportunity.”

Van Lent hopes her students take advantage of those opportunities — “that they get up in the morning and most days really want to go to work. For me, it’s kind of neat that I get to influence that somewhat.”

Part of a series of articles showcasing women in agriculture in Alberta.

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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