The general perception shared by many is that agriculture is ultimately a male-dominated industry. Women, however, play a significant role in agriculture, both in the United States and in countries around the globe.
In 2012, when the last agriculture census was released, the number of women farmers in the U.S. was 969,672; which at the time equated to 30 percent of all domestic farmers. Of that total, 288,264 of these women were listed as the principal operator in charge of day-to-day operations for their respective farms.
Insights magazine had the opportunity to speak with four women to discuss the opportunities, challenges and misconceptions they have experienced and observed while working in agriculture.
Meet Emma Prange Nelson
Emma Prange Nelson and her family farm 1,400 acres of corn and soybeans in New Palestine, Indiana.
INSIGHTS: How long have you been involved in agriculture?
NELSON: Our farm has been in our family on my dad’s side for over 100 years and I’m the fourth generation to run the farm. I started working on the farm when I was 16. By the time I graduated high school I was drilling beans and running the auger cart in the fall.
As I got older I gained more responsibility, and now I manage day to day operations with the help of my mom and sister.
INSIGHTS: When did you take over the farm?
NELSON: My dad passed away suddenly five years ago, at which point I took over day-to-day management responsibilities. It was overwhelming in the beginning, but I’m more comfortable in my role now.
INSIGHTS: What was the response from other farmers when you took over the farm?
NELSON: I think it took most of our neighbors by surprise. My dad was well-respected in the community. He passed away
in July of that year, and that following fall, we had a couple guys offer to help us harvest. I think they were taken aback when we turned them down.
Today, we have earned the respect of most of the people in our local community. Sure, you may get some interesting looks from people when they drive by and see you driving a tractor. I only know of one other female in the community who operates equipment and is involved in her family operation. It’s just not very common.
INSIGHTS: Do you feel women get the same respect in agriculture as their male counterparts?
NELSON: There was one time, maybe eight or nine years ago, when a gentleman who was driving down the road stopped by one of our fields. So I got out of the tractor to ask if he needed help and he said, “A woman driving a tractor. Now I’ve seen it all!” I didn’t even know how to respond to that.
I’m sure if I saw that gentleman again today he’d be even more surprised by what we’ve been able to accomplish.
INSIGHTS: What was your biggest challenge when you first took over the farm?
NELSON: I really struggled with spraying. It’s something I never did when my dad was around. He wanted me to, but
I was stubborn and turned him down. The first year I operated a sprayer, it was interesting. I left several strips of weeds in the field that year. We have some good friends who gave us advice. They assured me that you’ll never learn until you leave strips in the field. Everyone does it. But when we put the Ag Leader® Integra display in the RoGator, it helped a lot. It’s really nice to have because I could see where maybe I was taking too wide of a turn, or areas where I was too far over and was leaving little strips, allowing me to go back and take care of them. I think technology has been a big help in getting us to the next level.
INSIGHTS: What do you say to other young women who are considering farming?
NELSON: If I had any message to young women, it would be that you can do anything you put your mind to. Even though agriculture is a predominantly male-dominated industry, there are more and more females becoming involved
in the farming business. The stereotypes of old farmers wives staying in the kitchen is changing. In fact, my husband is a city boy who’s come onto the farm, when usually it’s the other way around. I hope women will continue to play an active role in agriculture and that they feel like they belong here. Society just has to come to understand that women can do this, too.
Meet Hope Lewis
Hope Lewis is an Ag Leader Technology Territory Manager based in Gothenberg, Nebraska. The territory Lewis serves includes Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado.
INSIGHTS: What’s your background in agriculture?
LEWIS: Well, I was born in San Francisco and went to high school there, so I really didn’t know much about agriculture growing up. My grandparents had horses and a few cattle and I always loved to visit them. In college, I studied animal science and management at University of California, Davis, and received my master’s degree in agricultural economics.
From there I went to work for a company in Sacramento called Precision Farming Enterprises, and that’s how I got started in precision ag.
INSIGHTS: What has surprised you the most about working in agriculture?
LEWIS: Before coming into this industry, I never understood how hard it is
to be a farmer. Your income potential is so little compared to your liabilities. Plus, farmers have so many varying responsibilities. They have to be machine operators, agronomists and now precision ag specialists. This is one of the most important things
to remember when working with farmers and getting them set up on a new precision
ag system. There’s so much to learn when it comes to precision ag, but you have to be respectful of the fact farmers have a lot of other things to do. Precision ag is just one of a thousand things.
INSIGHTS: What’s it like being a woman in agriculture?
LEWIS: This isn’t an industry that requires feats of strength and speed to be good at it.
You just have to care. It takes brains, sure, but more than that you have to love to do it. If you’re humble enough to ask questions, which I’ve had to do many times since I didn’t grow up in ag, you can get the answers you need to be successful.
INSIGHTS: Because you are a woman, have you ever felt at a disadvantage while working in this industry?
LEWIS: I know a lot of women in agriculture have faced pretty stark realities in the industry, namely the perception that
we don’t know what we’re talking about. I was once at a convention speaking to a
gentleman who thought I must be a secretary. He was super confused that I actually had the same job he had at his company. Once you get past that kind of thing, you’ll come to see it’s not an industry where being a male is any great benefit. Anyone can succeed in this business if they care.
INSIGHTS: Do you farm outside of your role as a Territory Manager?
LEWIS: My husband, his parents and I share a small cow-calf herd. We are in the midst of a three-year plan to take over the farm. We also have corn, alfalfa and some prairie hay. As my husband and I work to grow the farm, I’m excited to show him the kinds of benefits we can get from utilizing even just a little bit of technology. In the coming years, it’s my hope that every piece of equipment has Ag Leader on it.
Meet Jessie Morische
Jessie Morische is an Ag Leader Technology Territory Manager based in St. Charles, Minnesota. The territory Morische serves includes Minnesota and Wisconsin.
INSIGHTS: What’s your role as an Ag Leader Technology Territory Manager?
MORISCHE: My role is to lead dealer development in my territory and work with dealers to make sure they have all the tools necessary to be successful in their business and support their customers.
INSIGHTS: What made you want to do this job?
MORISCHE: Back when I was a freshman in high school is when I was first introduced to Ag Leader. We purchased systems to use on our family farm. That’s when I first learned about Ag Leader and what its goal was: to help farmers succeed by giving
them the tools to make better management decisions. Ever since that young age, I’ve known that this is the company I wanted to work for.
INSIGHTS: What’s the best part of working at Ag Leader?
MORISCHE: It’s a company that started in 1992, and 24 years later we continue to be committed to being leaders in precision agriculture. There are farmers I talk to who have been with Ag Leader since the early years, and they feel like they’re more than a customer. They feel like they’re part of something special. It’s why I love doing what I do.
INSIGHTS: What’s it like being a woman working in agriculture?
MORISCHE: It’s exciting to be a female in agriculture. I have always known I wanted to work in this industry.
Never questioned it or even considered doing anything else. Sure you may get some looks from people, but when it’s something you’ve always wanted to do, you don’t really think twice about it. Going
to college, I was one of only two girls in the program, so I’d get asked all the time, “What’s it like being the only girl in the class?” Honestly, I don’t think much about it because it’s something I’m passionate about.
INSIGHTS: What’s your advice to young women considering a job in agriculture?
MORISCHE: My advice for females in agriculture is to not be intimidated. There have been times when I could have been intimidated by being in a male-dominated industry. Had I let that affect me, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Keep remembering why you’re pursuing the career that you are and always be passionate about what you do.
Meet Karon Cowan
Karon Cowan is the owner of AgTech GIS, an Ag Leader Technology dealer based in Ontario, Canada. Cowan mostly supports SMS customers and dealers in the Ontario province, but has customers throughout other parts of Canada as well.
INSIGHTS: What’s your role as an Ag Leader dealer?
COWAN: I’ve been an Ag Leader dealer since the late 1990s, so a long time. I’ve sold the full line of products, but as of last year I decided to step away from the equipment side of the business and I’ve been concentrating on SMS sales only. My role is to spearhead not only sales but the training and support of SMS software to customers and the other
Ag Leader dealers in Canada. My customers are crop consultants and large crop input suppliers who use SMS to service their farm customers and I work directly with growers too. My real love is the mapping side of Ag Leader Technology — I’m not just a seller, I’m a user too.
INSIGHTS: What’s the best part of working with Ag Leader Technology?
COWAN: Well, I’ve always said even though I’m currently a company of one, I feel like I have a whole team of support behind me. I know if I don’t have the answer, the Ag Leader support team does.
That also gives me a lot of comfort in this stage of my career as well, knowing that, in the future, my customers will continue to be supported. Ag Leader has always allowed me to do big things even though I’m a small company.
INSIGHTS: How long have you been involved in agriculture?
COWAN: I didn’t grow up in agriculture; I was a suburban child, but I did make the decision to go to the University of Guelph in Ontario, which is a well-known agriculture college in Canada. So I met a lot of people and became more and more involved in the ag industry at that time. It’s been about 26 years that I’ve had my hand in the ‘agricultural pie’ as you might say. All of the different aspects of agricultural technology have made it a really exciting career choice.
INSIGHTS: What’s it like being a woman in agriculture? What are some of the challenges?
COWAN: I don’t know whether there are that many challenges. I know there have been times in my career where I’ve gone to a meeting and I might be only one of two or three women in the room. Fortunately, I don’t look at that as a problem, because when I’m out with all of my clients, I see a large presence of women in ag. We might not be the ones in the tractors, but when I think of myself as being a woman in ag, I think of myself as being one of many. While we might not have agricultural roles as upfront in the media, this industry would be half of what it is without equal participation of all facets — whenever there is a couple farming, they’re in it together. We might not all have a wrench in our hands but women are highly involved in ag.
INSIGHTS: What is your advice to other women considering a career in agriculture?
COWAN: There are so many parts of ag. That’s one of the most exciting things about it. Any academic background
could find work in agriculture. No matter what skillset you have, you can find a career
— accounting, marketing, sales, agronomy, managerial, technological. Women have a lot of opportunity in ag.