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Recruited to Ag's Front Line

Recently, I
was driving to a farm near Topeka, Kansas, when I saw a sign with the words,
One Kansas Farmer Feeds 155 people + You.

I smiled as I
read it, knowing there was a Kansas Agri-Women member who lived nearby. I'm
sure of it, because women in farming have been taking up the mantle of
promoting agriculture for decades.

Years ago,
farm organizations and commodity groups called upon women's auxiliaries –
mostly notably, Porkettes, CowBelles, and Farm Bureau Women's Committees – to
do this. They advocated for farmers, staging educational events at grocery
stores and schools.

Then, in the
late 1980s, farm organizations eliminated auxiliaries. The Michigan Farm Bureau
Federation dissolved its women's committee in 1987. Minnesota Pork Producers
combined its men's and women's groups in 1988. The Iowa Farm Bureau Women's
State Committee persevered until 2004.

Today, I see
this role being reinvented. Volunteers like Stephanie Essick, a Dickens, Iowa,
farmer (shown above, left) and LaVell Winsor, Topeka, Kansas (shown above,
right), are becoming the face of agriculture to American consumers.

Both are
volunteers for Common Ground, a national program launched in 2011 to connect
farm women with urban consumers and to help explain modern agriculture. It's
supported by the United Soybean Board and the National Corn Growers
Association.

Common Ground
shares the front line with lllinois Farm Families, another initiative backed by
commodity groups. Farmers invite Chicago "Field Moms" to their farms.
In 2012, the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance chose four women as the Faces
of Farming and Ranching.

This
reenlistment of women corresponds to the rise of social media. It's a smart
move, because it extends their outreach to a large virtual nonfarm audience.

Beyond that,
it engages women on their own time. Fewer women participate in ag groups today
because they work off-farm. In the evenings, they may have farm chores to do
and children to chauffeur.

Blogging,
posting on Facebook, or tweeting on Twitter can be done any time of the day or
night. This offers women the flexibility to manage multifaceted family and work
roles.

Women like
Essick and Winsor represent the demographic of a key target audience: women
with children at home.

"Most
women still buy food for their families," Winsor says. "Many of them
have legitimate concerns. I live close to Topeka and Lawrence, and there are
lots of opportunities to talk to nonfarmers. I have a personal passion for
this."

The Internet,
including YouTube and other social media, can showcase a day in the life of a
farmer. If you raise livestock, you know it's not unusual to bring a newborn
lamb or calf into the house.

Ree Drummond,
widely known for her The Pioneer Woman website, cookbooks, and TV show, brought
a calf into her Oklahoma farm mudroom. She posted photos on her blog and
Facebook updates about the calf named Abigail.

Women seem
hardwired to soften the blunt edges of agriculture and to color inside the
lines to reveal what farmers do.

Shifting
power base

Building
relationships is a key ingredient in today's political and economic landscape.
Could women do more of this in national farm leadership roles? Is the potential
of women being overlooked?

In 2004, Jan
Lyons served as president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Today,
Pam Johnson, Floyd, Iowa, leads the National Corn Growers Association. But it required years of tireless efforts at the state and national levels
for them to work their way up into national leadership.

In fact, some
say the failure to pass a new farm bill in an election year is a sign of the
farm sector's shrinking political power. Farmers are less than 2% of the
population, and this trend isn't likely to reverse course. Although I'd like to
see more women wielding influence on farm policy and global exports,
agriculture today has another critical front line.

Women may be
more valuable strategic assets in an increasingly consumer-driven urban society
when they build relationships closer to home.

Women in
sustainable and organic agriculture have even more frequent, one-on-one
interactions with consumers. This, in itself, is reason to put aside the wedge
issues dividing farmers – large or small, commodity or niche – and work
together.

Ultimately,
consumers are the key stakeholders who will determine the future direction of
American agriculture.

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