From the fields to the boardroom: Women are finding
success in traditionally male-dominated agriculture careers
By Christine Vovakes
The evening air is cool and the pasture at California State University, Chico’s organic dairy is full of lush grazing grass when Sarah Albers herds the cows to it after their last milking. The responsibilities of her part-time job are almost finished for the day, but Albers, a senior majoring in animal science with a minor in agricultural business, is reluctant to leave.
“I love the dairy. I love working with the cows,” she says. “My dream is to have my own animals, to make my own product, and to market it myself.”
Chances are, someday she will. Although agriculture is traditionally male-dominated, the fence gates that once barred women are swinging open. Currently, more than 300,000 women are the principal operators of farms in the United States, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This amounts to 14 percent of the nation’s 2.2 million farms, almost triple the number in 1978 (see sidebar, page 21). On college campuses, women eagerly pursue agriculture degrees that at one time were the domain of male students.
On few campuses is that trend more apparent than at Chico State. During the 2011 spring semester, 58 percent of the students enrolled in agriculture courses were women. Jennifer Ryder Fox, appointed dean of the College of Agriculture in August 2006, is the first woman to hold that position at Chico State, and the first woman in that position in the CSU system. Six female professors with PhDs teach in the department, along with several female part-time lecturers (out of 23 total faculty). Twenty years ago, in contrast, there was only one female on faculty in the College of Agriculture (Marian Baldy in Plant Science).
“At Chico State, we’re educating future leaders of agriculture to keep the land in production,” says Fox, emphasizing that the industry also needs highly trained individuals in the many jobs that provide a “web of support for the producers.”
What brings women into Chico State’s agriculture program to accept Dean Fox’s challenge to keep agriculture thriving? What careers are they pursuing? What future do they envision for themselves in the complex industry that produces food and fiber, not only for the United States but for other parts of the world?
FOR MELISSA GREEN, an agriculture career was a natural outgrowth of childhood and teen years on her family’s rural homestead in Arbuckle, California.
“I’ve been involved in ag since I was old enough to hold a bucket of oats,” she says. “I would sheer sheep, vaccinate animals, grow some of our own feed—even fix fences.”
A 2008 Chico State graduate with a BS in animal science, Green also earned a master’s degree in meat science from Colorado State University. Now a program manager for Harris Ranch Beef Company in Selma, California, she is involved with developing and maintaining product specifications to ensure consistent quality of the products the company sends to market.
“The great thing about Chico State is that each of my classes had a classroom and a lab,” says Green. “We had to do everything from tractor driving to grafting trees to breeding swine.”
Located about five miles south of the main campus, the 800-acre Paul L. Byrne Agricultural Teaching and Research Center, known simply as the University Farm, is a second home for most agriculture students.
“It’s such an incredible resource,” notes Green. “You learn everything from plants to animals. You’ll have an hour lecture a couple times a week, then go out on the farm and get your hands dirty.”
Her parents are both Chico State graduates who spent many years teaching in addition to managing a cow-calf operation on the family farm. They emphasized the importance of education, and insisted that each of their three children participate in at least one public speaking event. Green was nervous at first, but hooked.
During Green’s sophomore year, associate dean and farm manager David Daley found an opportunity for her to apply for a spot on a national three-person team that toured the country promoting beef sales. She was chosen and used the opportunity to combine her agriculture knowledge with oratorical skills.
“It was a great experience,” recalls Green. “It taught me how to plan, how to schedule, and how to address issues.”
“My parents and Chico State are why I am where I am today,” she says. “All my professors had such passion and enthusiasm for what they were teaching. They had the expertise, and they wanted to share it.”
She hopes to do the same.
“My biggest goal for the ag industry is to show the world the hard-working, genuine American families who day in and day out are right here providing for you and me because they love what they do,” says Green. “I’d love to take that same passion and pass it on to the next generation of agriculturists.”
JOANNA BLOESE IS ONE OF MANY agriculture students who was reared far from a ranch. Helping her father with backyard gardening is how she got her start in agriculture, she says. A transplant from Williamston, Michigan, the Chico State junior is majoring in crops, horticulture, and land resource management—with minors in both Italian and art.
Bloese is focusing on entomology with hopes of getting a graduate degree in that field and combining her eclectic interests by illustrating insect dissections for various publications.
Calling Economic Entomology, taught by Elizabeth Boyd, “a particularly fascinating class,” Bloese also loves the Agricultural Experimentation course taught by Patrick Doyle. The course is designed to develop critical thinking, problem solving, and analytical skills. “You set up an experiment and run an analysis,” she says. “It’s really applicable to scientists and to farmers.”
At the farm, students in Bloese’s Plant Science 101 class sowed their own crops of kale, carrots, and broccoli. “The farm is a great resource for us because we get hands-on experience,” says Bloese. “I really love it out there. Students produce the work. You see things grow.”
She considers Boyd her mentor. “Not only is she a wonderful and generous person, she sets high goals for herself and her students,” says Bloese. With Professor Boyd’s encouragement, Bloese obtained a $2,000 research and creativity award to work on a project to determine if sticky traps would catch more male or female navel orangeworm moths that attack almond orchards.
She spent last summer dissecting the trapped orangeworms, finding that the traps seem to be capturing female moths with fertilized eggs—before those eggs could be laid on healthy almonds and cause damage to the crop.
MEGAN BROWN, a 2004 Chico State graduate with a BS in agricultural business, values the leadership abilities she developed in the ag program. She comes from a six-generation Butte County cattle ranching family that raises and sells grass-fed cattle.
Saying, “I realize there’s a disconnect between the farm and the fork,” Brown devotes her energy to helping people outside agriculture realize the attributes of good ranching practices. Being actively involved in Agriculture Ambassadors and other campus ag clubs, plus giving school tours at the farm, helped shape her vision as an advocate for agriculture. “Chico State molded what I call my ag-vocate skills.”
Her mother, and older women friends who didn’t have an opportunity to obtain college degrees, encouraged her academic pursuits, says Brown, adding, “They want me back on the ranch, but they want me to have an education, too.”
Growing up, Brown learned how to use heavy agricultural equipment, fix fences, and do just about anything else required on a working cattle ranch. For students without that background, Chico State teaches and reinforces those essentials through hands-on experience at the University Farm. Brown was reminded how important those basic farming and ranching skills are when she was on a field trip as a student. “I was with all these men with their advanced degrees and knowledge of farm stuff. But I was the only one who could drive a tractor!”
SARAH ALBERS IS another of those students who had no early agricultural ties. She grew up in a small town in Humboldt County, and at Ferndale High School, she took a Future Farmers of America (FFA) class. “That’s when I fell in love with ag,” she says.
Now a senior, Albers originally wanted to be a veterinarian. But after taking different courses and working at Chico State’s certified organic dairy, she changed her mind. “Everything we do is dairy related,” says Albers. “We feed calves and cows, milk them, and sell the milk to an organic co-op [Organic Valley].” She adds that she enjoys the practical, hands-on aspect of her education. “You take everything you’re learning in class and put it into context by working at the dairy.”
She cites Professor Daley’s reproductive physiology class as an example. “You learn how to inseminate cows, and you can get certified in it.”
She named Daley, her academic advisor and the dairy’s faculty supervisor, as a mentor. She also singled out Darby Holmes, the full-time dairy supervisor. “It’s pretty rare to have a female dairy manager, so I definitely look up to her,” says Albers.
As for competing in the male-dominated industry, she says, “Women approach the industry more determined to succeed. You’re going to work hard at it to get where you want to go.”
She thinks opportunities abound for women in agriculture. “I take to heart what my professors say: ‘Everyone has to eat, so the ag industry is always going to be there.’ It’s a good field to pursue.”
Albers also advises students to look into more than one of the many types of agriculture-related careers: “Keep your options open. Realize that what you thought you wanted isn’t your only option.”
DEAN FOX ALSO EMPHASIZES the variety of opportunities for women in agriculture, especially in regard to animal science, the most popular major for women enrolled in Chico State’s agriculture college. “Our pre-vet program is one of the hardest programs on campus,” says Fox, noting that it focuses on food animals, also called large animal livestock, like dairy and beef cattle and sheep. The biggest need is for large animal vets, but many females come in wanting to be small-animal veterinarians, she says. “By the time they’re sophomores, the students figure out whether or not they want to pursue this course.”
Fox points out that a bachelor of science degree in animal science is the gateway not just to veterinarian school but to careers in research and development for companies like Purina, or work in sales and marketing or in other animal health areas. In addition to animal science, the college also offers degrees in agriculture and agricultural business, with several options within each of the three disciplines.
“There’s a lack of understanding of the many opportunities that are open to graduates in the agriculture field,” says Fox. She sees certified crop consultants, who work either as independent advisors or for large companies, as one area of exceptional opportunity for new graduates because aging baby boomers in those positions are beginning to retire. “We have a crop of 25-year-olds capable of assuming those positions,” she says, adding that it is a career women are choosing now more than a few years ago.
FOR MANY YOUNG WOMEN, the path to an agriculture degree begins in high school classrooms, where the FFA captures their imaginations.
FFA introduces students to everything to do with agriculture, from livestock to business to machinery, says Jeanette Sturzen, a 1985 Chico State graduate with a degree in agricultural business. Sturzen is a regional consultant for the California Department of Education, overseeing the FFA in the Superior Region. She is responsible for the area from Sacramento to the Oregon border, and periodically visits each of the schools where she coordinates the FFA program.
“We have field days, regional meetings, and career development events,” says Sturzen, noting that FFA is valuable not just for imparting knowledge and experience with animals and crops, but for preparing youth for public speaking and job interviews. “FFA helps build character, self-confidence, and financial skills.”
Once an all-male student organization, the FFA began admitting females in 1969. Sturzen says that there are currently more than 70,000 FFA members in California, nearly half of them female.
“I try to be a role model and mentor to all my students. They see that I have a true passion for agriculture,” says Sturzen, a third-generation cattle and hay rancher in Glenn County who previously taught agriculture classes for several years at Hamilton Union High School.
“I believe my education and the family atmosphere at Chico State helped prepare me for anything I wanted to do,” she says. “Everything I had in core classes, from ag economics to public speaking, I’ve used over and over in my life.”
About the author …
Christine Vovakes is a freelance writer who lives in Northern California. Her articles and photos have appeared in publications including The Washington Post, Sacramento Bee and San Francisco Chronicle.
Mentoring Female Students
Cynthia Daley accepted a position at the CSU, Chico College of Agriculture in 1998 after completing a BS in animal science at the University of Illinois and a PhD at the University of California, Davis in 1997. She recently created the first certified-organic, pasture-based dairy program on a university campus in the Western Region and co-authored a business plan with her dairy students to develop a farmstead creamery to provide dairy products to the campus and the Chico community. In addition, Daley has recently garnered two USDA grants to support the dairy industry. A teaching dynamo, she has the respect and gratitude of the many students who consider her a mentor and role model.
“Our program has a number of opportunities for students to gain hands-on, practical experience in agricultural sciences, including a host of courses throughout the curriculum that have a laboratory as a required component,” says Daley. Students can also take advantage of internships, work study (paid work at the University Farm), directed work opportunities (for class credit), and applied research experiences through a number of industry-funded projects.
Daley explains that students who work hard and take advantage of the many opportunities offered them are often hired immediately upon graduation. “Once a student acquires important practical skills,” says Daley, “job opportunities become more gender neutral. Because we have a number of opportunities for the development of these practical skills, we have prepared our female graduates to excel in an industry once dominated by men.”
She believes that women bring a slightly different skill set to the profession, including “uncanny organizational skills, attention to detail, compassion, intuitive thinking and problem-solving capabilities, and a strong desire to prove themselves in what has been a very male-dominated industry.”
The college is also encouraging more women to consider the Agribusiness Minor or the Entrepreneurship Minor through the College of Business, says Daley. “The ultimate goal is to create more women farmers and ranchers in business for themselves.”
Women-owned and -operated farms and ranches are an important subset of small and home-based business owners in the United States. While the total number of farms has been declining for many years, the number owned and operated by women is increasing.
Data from the 2001 Family Farm Report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service show that in 1978, for example, women ran 5.2 percent of all U.S. farms. By 2007, women ran about 14 percent of the nation’s 2.2 million farms.
Principal women operators are generally full owners of their farms and live on their property. Traditionally, many inherited the farms as widows and chose to continue the family business. Beginning in 1982, the average age of women farmers began to decrease, and by 1997 more than 40 percent were under 55 years old. More women are making the choice to own and manage their own farms.
Sources: “Women in Agriculture,” USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture website, March 18, 2009; and 2007 Census of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, USDA.