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Sunday, 04 March 2018 18:48

Farming's female future? West Michigan women buck stereotypes with ag industry careers

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GRAND RAPIDS — The new generation of agricultural leaders across West Michigan will likely look different than your grandfather’s farm.

As the agricultural sector changes, so too does the male stereotype of the region’s farmers, according to industry experts and educators. They point to the many women these days who are choosing to perform farm work, whether that’s running crop and livestock operations, managing the books or handling the hiring and firing of employees. 

“I think (people) look at agriculture as the tough man’s work,” said Kristi Keilen, a partner in K&K Dairy near Westphalia, Mich. “You see them pitching manure and driving a tractor, but nobody ever thinks of a woman being able to pitch the manure and drive the tractor. We’re just as capable.”

Portland, Mich. farmer Danielle “Dannie” Dryer agrees. 

Dryer operates Dryer Farms and Daughters, a roughly 600-acre farm that grows corn, soybeans and hay. On the farm, women can “do anything men can do.”

“I have no brothers,” she said. “I am one of four girls that run a farm, and I … can do anything and everything a guy can do.”

That women increasingly are turning to careers in the agricultural industry also bears out in the shifting makeup of university programs focused on the agricultural sector. 

Dr. Kelly Millenbah sees the shift “more and more to women” in her classes at Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR). The majority of students entering classes — 53 percent — are female, she said. 

“We have become more female-dominated,” said Millenbah, an associate professor at CANR. “It’s not a significant shift, but it has progressively changed over time, where we over the last few years have had more women than men at our college.”

The growth of farms with women principal operators in Michigan outstripped gains nationally from 2002 to 2012, according to data in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture. Over the decade, the number of women principal operators at Michigan farms grew 25.5 percent, compared to growth of 21.2 percent nationally over the same period. 

Women principal operators are also more concentrated in Michigan compared to the U.S. as a whole. Of the state’s 52,194 farms in operation in 2012, 14.2 percent had women principal operators, compared to 13.7 percent nationwide, according to the most recent Census of Agriculture data available. The 2017 census results should be issued later this year. 

While more women are working in the agricultural industry now compared to previous generations, Keilen said there’s still an adjustment period for women transitioning into leadership roles on the farm.

“When I actually took over the farm (for my father-in-law), I took over a lot of the daily tasks he did,” Keilen said. “This mindset of the male always ran the farm and told the employees what to do and now that there is a female running the farm, it took a while for that (role) to transfer over.”

Not only does Keilen own and operate a fourth-generation, 500-cow dairy farm, but she’s also a feed salesperson for the Carson City-based Harvey’s Milling Co. — another position usually dominated by men, she said.

“It seems like the sales people were always men,” Keilen said. “It seems (women) are coming out of college and we’re graduating more women out of the ag program … and I think that roles, specifically, are changing: the crop protection (jobs), the specialists, the veterinarians. Those roles, I think, are changing more so to women.”

CHALLENGES ABOUND

While women face key challenges in running agribusiness operations, the industry in general suffers from an image problem, according to Millenbah.

“There are a lot of individuals who don’t understand the depth and complexity of what it means to be in agriculture and food-related spaces, as well as the different opportunities that exist in those spaces,” Millenbah said. “Most people … have this understanding that agriculture is plows, sows and cows. That’s a portion that’s involved in that area, but that’s not everything.”

Because agriculture has been a male-dominated industry, Millenbah said “there are things that have challenged women into being seen as leaders in that space.”

For example, Millenbah said women are not often associated with STEM-based disciplines, which creates an implicit bias in who the public perceives can perform in those workspaces.

“Hopefully, we are able to turn the corner on that and recognize both men and women serve vital roles in different spaces and places within agriculture, whether that’s on the field or in a laboratory,” Millenbah said. 

‘FULL OF JOBS’

Helen Dietrich, whose fifth-generation family farm, Dietrich Orchards, picks and packs apples and asparagus, is noticing more agribusiness opportunities for women after they complete college. 

“The crop protection companies are hiring a lot of women right now, where before they really didn’t,” said Dietrich, an apple farmer in Conklin, Mich. “There are a lot of kids who went to school in our area, and they had all of these big plans and now they are working for Wilbur Ellis (a feed company). Agriculture is full of jobs.” 

With more women in agriculture, educators like Millenbah said there’s ample opportunity for students finishing higher education to become a technician, to handle farm operations or to enter a food packaging career.

“We have some people who are accountants, business analysts, (or) they are in insurance,” Millenbah said. “We have other people that might be into farm operations, policy and legislative work. … If you take a look at the list (of careers our students enter after graduating), it’s so incredibly diverse.”

With Dietrich, her farm needed a public relations person, so she filled the void.

“My role was always in the office, but it was more of a PR role because every one of those (400 migrant) workers has a story to tell, and somebody has to listen to that story,” Dietrich said. “It takes a lot of people to run a farm. … It’s a partnership. That doesn’t necessarily have to be a husband-wife partnership; it can be mother-son, sister-brother. It’s a partnership, it’s a team. Farms are run by a team.” 

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