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Women on the grow

Lori Lang doesn't hesitate to try her hand at something new. That includes downhill skiing, scuba diving, ice climbing – and farming. As a high school senior at Vinton, Iowa, she rented 15 acres to grow soybeans for her FFA Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE).When her crop was ready to harvest, she drove their 1660 combine 5 miles to the field. Her mom, Pauline Grovert, wasn't sure her daughter was road-ready. Her dad, George Grovert, didn't try to talk her out of it.

Today, Lang, 38, sets and operates a combine with a 30-foot head. Together, with her older brother, Paul Grovert, and their parents, she farms 2,000 acres of seed corn, seed beans, and commodity grain.

After completing an ag education degree and an agronomy minor at Iowa State University, Lang worked in agribusiness and later taught ag ed. Five years ago, her parents offered her and Paul the opportunity to return home to farm full time.

Lang returned as a single mom. "I jumped in with both feet, bringing my two girls with me," she says.

She grew up watching her mom and dad work together. "I called myself a farmer," Pauline says. Three decades ago, women who farmed with their husbands received little recognition for their roles.

Men still operate the majority of U.S. farms that produce commercial crops and require capital-intensive assets of land and equipment. USDA statistics reveal that women operate 14% of the nation's 2.2 million farms. Of all ag producers, more than 30% are women. That's up 19% since 2002.

The 2012 census may mark greater gains. Trends in demographics, technology, and consumer food choices are converging to carve out a larger role for women in production agriculture, niche local foods, agribusiness, and landownership. Ag women truly are on the grow.

Lang and her brother bought their first farm together as she was finishing college. Since then, they've purchased two other farms. They also rent family ground.

Lang's early struggles with cultivating seem irrelevant today. Her reputation for straight rows no longer yields bragging rights because farmers can achieve the same results with GPS. Her major challenge, marketing, is gender-neutral. "When I was growing up, Mom and Dad talked about missing the market by a nickel," she says. "Today, there are 80¢ market swings. I love growing plants, and driving tractors. Every time a semi leaves here, though, I can't help but think about the profit or loss."

Lang's personal history as a woman farmer is mostly positive. "Very few people are gender-biased," she says. "Some customers tend to call Paul even if he's told them I'll be handling the situation. They don't realize I'm his business partner."

Other farmers are very supportive. "Sometimes I ask questions of farmers I admire for their business savvy," she says. "I've found them to be very open in sharing information."

A widowed neighbor farms with her son, but there aren't any other solo women farmers nearby. Lang has traveled with Iowa women farmers as part of an Iowa State University Extension Farmer to Farmer Project to advise Ugandan women farmers.

She balances farming with being a mom and a school volunteer. "I don't bake cookies the first week of May," she says. She's grateful for backup child care from her mom and sister-in-law.

Lang is part of a crop of farmers cultivated by Ag450 farm operator Greg Vogel over the past 22 years at the ISU student-run farm. "We average about 15% to 20% women in the class," he says. "When I started, we didn't have many."

A 2011 study of 70 land-grant universities reveals that undergraduate women enrolled in agriculture programs outnumber men by more than 2,900 students. At the Ag450 farm, Vogel says women students gravitate to managerial, financial, or public relations areas, with a few choosing agronomy and livestock.

"Women tend to be proactive," he says. "They want to get at it, get it done, and move on. They're not set in their ways of doing things. Guys often do things Dad's way. Agriculture today relies more on technology; there are fewer physical demands. It requires reflection. That's made it more attractive to women."

You grow, girl

The fastest-growing segment of women farmers is in produce, specialty crops, animals, and one-to-one direct markets. Their farms are smaller and more intensive, averaging 210 acres in the 2007 Ag Census. They carry less debt.

This trend is fed by a consumer groundswell for fresh, local foods and face-to-face relationships with food producers. Sara Morrison, 38, operates The Backyard Grocery, an urban garden consulting business she founded in 2009 in Bayport, a Twin Cities suburb. Last year, she added a community-supported agriculture (CSA) venture.

"It's a different way of selling," she says. "You have to be personally involved with CSA customers by email and phone, and you need to talk about pricing with wholesale customers."

Morrison, who grew up in nearby Stillwater, has no farm background. Her mom, Lois, spent time at an aunt's dairy farm as a child, where she helped tend their vegetable garden. She acquired a love of gardening and later became a Master Gardener.

Morrison preferred riding horses. After high school, she earned an equine science degree in 1992. For over a decade, she trained horses and gave riding lessons while living in California, Holland, and Wales.

"If you had told my mom someday I'd be farming and growing vegetables, she wouldn't have believed it," Morrison says.

In 2002, she returned to Minnesota to put down roots. Literally.

Buying a home gave her a foothold. She describes her first garden as a disaster. Her mom offered sage advice, and Morrison began devouring books about growing vegetables. In her job as produce manager at the River Market Co-op in Stillwater, she met local farmers.

"Suddenly, I had a lot of exposure to farmers, food, and the food chain," she says. She decided that there could be a market for other novice gardeners, so she launched her business. She helped them plan gardens and offered advice during the growing season. The business grew from 15 customers in the first year to 40. In the winter she conducts gardening workshops.

Morrison tilled a plot on her mom's small farm across the river in Wisconsin, where they planted garlic, shallots, and heirloom vegetables. They canned produce to sell at farmers' markets.

By 2010, she decided she needed a a new business model. She and Lois enrolled in a Land Stewardship Project's Farm Beginnings class in Wisconsin.

Recently, Morrison acquired 1 acre in Stillwater. She hopes to expand from 10 to 15 CSA customers, delivering vegetables weekly and sharing recipes for the produce in their CSA boxes.

She's also diversifying to sell to wholesale markets, including three Stillwater restaurants and the River Market Co-op. "Whatever's interesting and fun for them to cook is what I want to grow," she says. "There's more profit in niches, too."

Morrison's challenges mirror Lang's, but on a smaller scale: drought, insects, agronomics, and markets. The joys for this self-described "new kid on the block" also resonate. "I love being outdoors and the first day of working the rows barefoot," she says. "I'm constantly amazed what seeds can do."

She adds, "It takes a lot of up-front work. You have to establish relationships, plant the seeds, and then it's on you to deliver the goods. There's a real demand. I've noticed a lot more women farmers since 2002."

These are skills that many women possess. "Over the past five years, about half of the people at our workshops have been women," says Brian DeVore, Land Stewardship Project.

Applying off-farm skills

LaVell Winsor never had second thoughts about working in the male bastion of marketing. Today, the farm-grown Colorado native is applying her education and off-farm skill set on a Topeka, Kansas, farm with her husband, Andy, his parents, Pat and Russell, and Andy's brother, Ben.

Winsor, 37, earned an agribusiness degree from Colorado State University in 1997. She was hired by Cargill, Inc., and worked in operations, accounting, and merchandising in Washington state.

"It was so interesting and I learned so much, but it was in my heart to work with farmers directly," she says.

She transferred to Kansas in 1999 and became a farm marketer, working with country elevators and building relationships with farmer/clients. Winsor doesn't dwell on her challenges as a woman. "If you're going to be in a male-dominated field, you better not get your head wrapped around it," she says.

She was working in Topeka when she met Andy. They married in 2003 and have two sons. In 2005, she became one of 20 personal marketing managers for Cargill AgHorizons Marketing Services and the only woman. She traveled weekly, making recommendations to farmers.

In 2007, she left Cargill to work at Kansas State University as a farm financial analyst. She helped farmers use FINPACK, a financial software, and led workshops called Keeping the Family Farming.

Today, she's a commodity adviser for a Manhattan-based firm. She handles marketing and records for their farm and Andy's parents. "I still do a FINPACK analysis on our farm," she says. "It's a good budgeting and cash-flow tool.

"I always encourage farmers to involve their spouse in marketing and finances," she says. "My mom was a hands-on farmer. She farmed full time while Dad also worked off-farm. Some women are very involved in the day-to-day and some aren't. Farm women do a lot more than they get credit for. In a way, they're the glue, the emotional support system. They're hands-on with business details."

Winsor is too young to recall that three decades ago, a Springfield, Nebraska, farm woman named Doris Royal, led a successful petition drive to prove a widow's contribution to a farm owned in joint tenancy. This effort helped women pass on the farm to the next generation.

Through the Keeping the Family Farming workshops, Winsor has observed the role women play in farm transitions.

Don Jonovic, Family Business Management Services, reinforces her view. "I've seen a transformation of the woman's role from loyal, behind-the-scenes support and acquiescence to up-front participation and advocacy," he says. "On the whole, it's a positive change, forcing constructive conversation and action on key succession issues."

During the farm crisis of the 1980s, women assumed off-farm jobs to pay for living expenses and to provide health insurance. A generation ago, unless a woman was a teacher, she often quit her job after marriage. For Winsor and a growing segment of women like her, there's no turning back. "I think I'll always have one foot planted in agribusiness," she says.

Women at the table

Women have made high-profile contributions in the livestock arena. Temple Grandin has blazed a trail as consultant to the meat industry, implementing animal welfare standards for McDonald's and designing humane slaughter plant procedures.

Women increasingly are landowners. The 2002 Ag Census showed a 13% increase in women managing farm assets between 1997 and 2002. Women control 28% of leased farmland and jointly own an added 48% of rented acres.

When it comes to national farm leadership positions in commodity agriculture, however, not many women have a place at the table. Pam Johnson of Floyd, Iowa, is serving as president of the National Corn Growers Association.

In contrast, women on the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition's organizational council outnumber men. Women are leaders of major national organic food and agriculture organizations. 

In recent years, USDA has taken steps to encourage women on farms. When Lang's mother, Pauline, was asked to serve on the Farm Service Agency (FSA) county committee as a minority member, minus voting rights, she declined. Last month, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced that he's appointing voting members from socially disadvantaged groups to serve on county FSA committees that lack representation.

The USDA also is reaching out to Hispanic and women farmers and ranchers who can prove that the government engaged in discriminatory practices between 1981 and 2000. In the 2011 fiscal year, FSA made 3,553 loans to women. This is a 31% increase from 2006.

Women are proving they can diversify agriculture, with their skills, knowledge, and passion. They have the momentum.

Lang says young producers – male or female – face steep start-up costs. "I'm concerned it'll keep many out," she says. "Women are good at face-to-face direct marketing, and it takes fewer resources. Women also do a great job blogging about agriculture and educating nonfarmers." 

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Women agribusiness mentors

Career opportunities abound for women in agriculture and agribusiness today. "The future of agriculture is bright, and there's a lot of optimism," says LaVell Winsor, Topeka, Kansas, farm woman and commodity adviser. "For women, I think there are great opportunities in agribusiness."

Penny Lauritzen, Lanark, Illinois, agrees. Four years ago, she initiated the Women Changing the Face of Agriculture career fair. (She holds the sign in the main story photo.) The 2013 event, a project of Illinois AgriWomen, was held at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale on March 8. It attracted 400 high school and college-age women interested in agribusiness careers.

Scholarships, supported by agribusiness sponsors, are offered to participants aiming for careers in science, technology, engineering, agriculture, and math.

FFA and 4-H member attendees compete in a fun event called The Duct Tape & Fencing Wire Challenge. Today, women make up 43% of FFA memberships, and they hold half of the state leadership positions.

Women are stepping up to mentor the next generation. "Young women are continuing their education after high school," Lauritzen says. "It's up to our generation to support and to develop their potential as future women leaders in the ag industry."

Women carve new turf

Sara Morrison and her mom, Lois Morrison, enjoy mother-daughter outings that involve food. It's not so unusual. Unlike other mother-daughter duos, their time spent together focuses on the production end of the farm-to-table movement.

They recently attended the 24th annual Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) Conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin. It's the nation's largest educational and networking event for organic farmers. According to the Organic Farming Research Foundation, 22% of organic farmers are women.

As agriculture becomes more consumer-driven, women like the Morrisons are in the forefront. Sara launched her CSA and wholesale vegetable sales on a plot of land owned by Lois. Sara was assisted by Lois's lifelong knowledge of gardening.

In 2008, MOSES, based in Spring Valley, Wisconsin, launched the Rural Women's Project. Its director, Lisa Kivirist, and her husband left Chicago careers to farm in southern Wisconsin.

The Rural Women's Project features a series of on-farm workshops in Wisconsin and Minnesota called "In Her Boots: Sustainable Farming for Women, by Women." The tours cover organic dairies, rotational grazing, growing produce, livestock and grass-fed meat operations, and agritourism. (Learn more at

In addition to Sara's garden plot on Lois's small Wisconsin farm, Lois also keeps bees. She's helping conventional farmers maintain a foothold in agriculture, as well. She recently rented hay ground to livestock producers in the area.

This land is hers

Sarah Lankton (right)  and Pam Nelson (left), Northbrook, Illinois, both inherited farms from their parents. There's nothing passive, however, about the hands-on role they are taking to keep up with agriculture and to manage their farms from a distance.

The two women met at a suburban Chicago book club and bonded over the discovery that they both own farmland.

According to the USDA Economic Research Service, 46% of farmland owned by women is inherited. The average age of a woman solo landowner who leases land is 70.

Over the next two decades, an estimated 70% of U.S. farmland will change hands. It's projected that 75% of the land that's transferred will go to women. An increasing number live out of state.

"Over 20% of land in Iowa, and in many other states, is rented from absentee owners," says Mike Duffy, Iowa State University ag economist. "My guess is this eventually will level out at 40%."

Lankton and Nelson say they enjoy networking with other women. The same holds true for doing business.

"When I call the local grain elevator, I speak to a woman who works there," Lankton says. "One day when I was talking to her, I found out that she works directly with another woman who is her contact at the river grain terminal."


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