A Woman’s Touch: Number And Impact Of Women In Agriculture Is Growing

By Nikki Work
Greeley Tribune, Colo.

During the 2013 Super Bowl, few ads hit home for the ag community like the Ram Trucks advertisement, “Farmer,” which featured excerpts of Paul Harvey’s 1978 speech “So God Made a Farmer.” For Iowa’s Marji Guyler-Alaniz, the advertisement was touching, but something was missing — women.

In the two years since, Guyler-Alaniz has made it her mission to tell the world something the ad and many representations of farmers do not. She began a journey from behind the lens of her camera to document the life of women in agriculture. Her project — called FarmHer — has since taken on a life of its own. She has photographed 65 women at work on their farms or ranches.

Although women may be traditionally underrepresented in ag, their numbers are growing, according to a study done by AgCareers.com, an employment website for agricultural professions. The study, called the Agribusiness HR Review, surveyed more than 100 ag employers on workplace data. Almost twice as many employers said they have seen growth in their female workforce than those that said they hadn’t.

“I think that there’s so much beauty in the everyday stuff that these women do,” Guyler-Alaniz said. “That’s one of the great things that I have seen through this and I hope other people have seen too.”

Kathy Rickart, who co-manages Tigges Farm in Greeley with her sister and brother, also was inspired by the “God Made a Farmer” commercial and spurred to action by the lack of women shown. She wrote a poem telling “the rest of the story” — “So God made a Farmwife!”

After all, Rickart has known what it’s like to be a woman in agriculture longer than many. In the early 1970s, she became the first full-time extension director with Colorado State University Extension in Elbert County. Though she faced many difficulties, such as other directors blatantly ignoring her at meetings, she persevered and held the position for more than 20 years.

She was inspired to go into ag by her mother, Mary Tigges. Rickart said her mother was the first woman to test milk at dairies and championed the right for girls to participate in catch-a-calf at the National Western Stock Show.

“I merely followed in the footsteps of the path less taken,” she said.

Now, Rickart runs a successful agritourism business with her siblings and is excited to see the future of agriculture — with a woman’s touch.

“I think that gals have the ability to sometimes come up with creative or out-of-the-box ideas because they aren’t steeped into the tradition of ‘It has to be done this way,'” she said. “Just being a female, we’re going to do things different. So I think you’re going to see some exciting things happen with women in farming and agriculture that we may not have even thought of, females or males.”

Jen Welch, who farms in Buena Vista with her family, founded The Farmers Femme to provide a service for women in ag. For the newcomers to the field, Welch said sometimes inexperience can lead to success.

“I think that we are a little bit more willing to see what works as opposed to going back and asking past generations, ‘What works for you?'” Welch said.

She stressed though she has seen firsthand the number of women in ag growing, many women have been there all along.

The Farmers Femme is a group comprised of women farmers in central Colorado, which the group defines as a 100-mile radius around Salida, that aims to provide a community for women in ag.

“There is importance in not only farmers having their own community, but women farmers especially, because of some of the challenges we face. It is really important for us to band together and be there to help support one another,” Welch said.

Sondra Pierce, who farms about 1,000 acres across Weld and Boulder counties with her husband and three children, echoed this sentiment.

She said people don’t take her seriously, especially if her husband or father-in-law is around. When she tried to get involved with ag organizations, they were primarily geared toward men. Now, though, she’s found an organization of her own.

Pierce works as a volunteer with CommonGround Colorado, the state’s branch of a national grassroots movement that aims to connect women farmers and ranchers with women consumers.

“I am glad that grassroots movements have began, like CommonGround, that really give women a voice in agriculture,” she said. “I feel like I am really connecting people with how we grow food.”

Pierce didn’t start off in agriculture but married into it, and now she sees the importance of not only showing the world what women in ag can do, but in passing it on to her own children.

“They are very active with our operations now and we let them help with things they can at their age,” Pierce said. “We keep them involved with our equipment and how to use it … We try and get them involved with new technology in agriculture so they can be more efficient and productive.”

Pierce’s 13-year-old daughter just learned to drive a tractor. Her youngest daughter is 9 years old, and Pierce said one of her favorite things to do is to irrigate. She wants her girls and her 16-year-old son to continue on with the farm and to know the title “farmer” doesn’t come with a prescribed gender.

Ann Cross, executive assistant at Colorado Corn and state facilitator for CommonGround, said CommonGround works to show the public that agriculture is accessible, trustworthy and real. She said the conversations between women on both sides of the fence “help consumers understand that farm and ranch women are feeding their families the same food that we’re looking at buying in the grocery store.”

Cross emphasized it may not just be that numbers of women in ag are growing, but also that their voices are getting louder.

“Women have always been involved on the farm. They always have. I believe now is just a great time for a woman’s voice to be heard, and it’s heard in a different venue,” Cross said. “It’s women taking a very, very outspoken, advocate role with what they do on the farm.”

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