Female farmers on the rise

More women than ever are taking on essential roles in American agriculture. Nationwide, over the past 10 years the number of female farm operators increased 14 percent, and the number of female principle farm operators increased 21 percent, according to the latest U.S. Census of Agriculture.

“I’m happy to see that more women are taking the lead in farms and ranches,” said Mickey Killingsworth, owner and operator of a sheep ranch in Madras. Killingsworth serves as Oregon Farm Bureau’s 4th vice president and chair of the OFB Women’s Advisory Council.

“Today when I go to town to make a big order of fertilizer or buy farming equipment, I don’t get asked where my husband is. It’s not so unusual to be a female farmer anymore, which is a positive for agriculture,” she said.

Here in Oregon, women farmers and ranchers are involved in raising each of Oregon’s 220+ agriculture commodities, from sheep to dairy cows, hazelnuts to Christmas trees, and vegetables to nursery products.

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Angela Bailey, OFB 2nd vice president, is the primary day-to-day operator of Verna Jean Nursery, located outside of Portland.

“My mom Verna Jean Hale started the nursery in 1967,” said Bailey. “She was a woman who worked in agriculture her entire life, who was not bound by any preconceived notions of what she should be and certainly was not slowed down by any barriers to success. I knew from watching my mother that my gender would not be a disadvantage when I took over the nursery.”

[PHOTO CAPTION: From left are OFB 4th VP Mickey Killingsworth, 2nd VP Angela Bailey, 1st VP Peggy Browne, and 3rd VP Barb Iverson. ]

A natural evolution of women growing food for our tables is that many have become powerful advocates for Oregon agriculture. Social media is the preferred avenue for “agvocating” for women, according to a new American Farm Bureau survey. Research shows that farm and ranch women are perceived as credible sources of information on the production of food.

There are numerous blogs written by Oregon farmers about their work and lives. Shelly Boshart Davis — recently named “National Farm Mom of the Year” in a nationwide contest — writes a blog at http://daughterofatrucker.com/; Brenda Frketich, who raises grass seed, hazelnuts, and other crops, blogs at http://nuttygrass.com/; and Marie Bowers Stagg writes about her life farming at http://oregongreenblog.com.

“Being a voice of reason in the comments section of newspaper articles is also good, though sometimes you have to have a thick skin,” says Bailey. “On contentious issues like GMOs or pesticides, present your perspective with accuracy and truth. Say, ‘You know what, that is really scary. That’s why I’m happy to tell you it actually isn’t true.’ That really resonates with people who haven’t made up their minds.”

Dairy farmer and member of the OFB Board of Directors, Carol Marie Leuthold hopes more female farmers and ranchers will share agriculture’s perspective not only with the general public — but with lawmakers.

“Start by sharing what you know about life as a farmer, and then take on some legislative issues that impact your operation. And there are certainly many to choose from,” said Leuthold.

“Attend your county Farm Bureau meetings to learn about current local, state, and national issues. Go to your local radio station, which in rural areas is pretty accessible. Write to your legislators, write a letter to the editor. You really can make a difference. My advice is to not be afraid; just do it,” said Leuthold.

Farm Bureau is a great place for female ag producers to get involved in agriculture advocacy.

“I’ve always felt that Farm Bureau had a place for me,” says Bailey. “Once I demonstrated that I was interested in using my leadership and communication skills, I was very much embraced and encouraged.”

Currently there are seven women farmers on OFB’s statewide board of directors, and two who serve as county Farm Bureau presidents.

To get a sense of what leadership skills are most useful to female agriculturalists, American Farm Bureau conducted the Women in Ag Survey. Communicating effectively through social media and other avenues, establishing and achieving goals, and strategic planning ranked highest for effective leadership among those surveyed.

Respondents cited obtaining financial support, business plan development, and prioritizing/finding time to accomplish tasks as their most common business challenges.

Nearly 2,000 women completed the informal online survey. About three-quarters of those surveyed own or share ownership of a farm or ranch. One-third of women surveyed have not yet started a business but indicated they would like to do so in the future.

Learn more about the Women in Ag Survey results at http://bit.ly/1AHKadr.

Learn more about Oregon Farm Bureau at http://www.oregonfb.org/.

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