For the past two weeks, I have spent several inspiring days with women leaders in agriculture. Sheryl Sandberg would be impressed with how far we are leaning in.
The first meeting was a roundtable discussion with U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Krysta Harden. Tonya Antle, a pioneer in the organic produce industry, invited about 15 of us from the Salinas Valley and Central Coast to meet with the Secretary as part of her Women in Agriculture Mentoring Network. Among the group were CEOs, CFOs, Founders, Owners and Partners. We represented cow-calf operations, the floral industry, fresh cut vegetables, packaged salads, grassfed beef, and policymakers.
“In the office, on the road, I am constantly stopped by young women looking to find mentorship, or current leaders looking to lift up our next generation,” Harden said. “Today there are nearly one million women working on American lands.”
Some of us married a farmer or rancher and have played important roles building our family businesses. Others were born in to farming families and took over from a father or brother who retired or died. Each of us has had to prove ourselves in a male-dominated industry, often speaking up for the rights of women workers and advocating for family-friendly policies. One company President asked the Secretary if there are any programs to help managers learn English so she can put her Spanish-speaking employees on management tracks. Ms. Antle spoke of her company’s on-site school and daycare facility, built after they asked employees what they needed most: child care and nearby quality schools. We all laughed about coming home from business trips and finding the house more disheveled than when we left, but grateful for partners who hold the fort down while we’re away. When I used to travel to Washington ,D.C., I came home to a kitchen sponge as hard as a hockey puck, but Sarah and Jack made it to soccer practices, were well-fed and happy. It takes as much teamwork to run a business as it does to run a family.
We told Secretary Harden that our industry needs federal policies that protect jobs in our fields (pun intended). Immigration reform cannot be punted down the field any longer. It’s time to offer agricultural workers legal status and give them the dignity and rights they deserve. Many of our longtime employees have been working in California for generations yet struggle to get ahead, afraid of being deported and earning sub-standard wages because of their lack of access to quality education and health care. We also asked her to tell Congress that the Farm Bill needs to review outrageous subsidies to wealthy corn, sugar and soybean growers and re-direct those funds – estimated to be between $15-35 billion annually – to programs that build soil and support specialty crops like fruits and vegetables, organics and family farms.
The second gathering was a three-day retreat at the Paicines Ranch (a sponsor of BenitoLink), in Paicines. Women in Ranching included about 25 women raising pastured poultry, sheep and cattle. Some are managing grasslands. Custom graziers work for landowners that want to see native perennial grasses, oak trees and wildlife habitats thrive on their property, often while running livestock for profit. They develop and monitor managed grazing plans according to the owner’s goals for a particular property.
This is a smart, young, new crop of ranchers eager to learn about the business and share information. There were graduates from U.C. Berkeley, University of Vermont, Harvard, Brown, Cal Poly and University of Virginia to name a few. Many have started their own businesses with bank loans and/or their own savings. Several of us are direct-marketing our products via CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), online websites and farmers markets. We’ve all worked the seven-day work week, until we’re reminded that balance is key to success.
The most inspiring part of the Women in Ranching gathering was the energy in the room about the future. Many women in the group use Holistic Management to write a three-part goal including land, people and money. They make decisions with all three parts in mind in order to build sustainable and financially thriving businesses. And they’re killing it! Several women celebrated being able to attend the gathering because they had learned to delegate jobs to employees – not an easy task, as any small business owner knows. We talked about starting an outdoor clothing company for women – there’s a sad selection out there currently – and being able to walk into the all-male dairy farmers’ daily meeting at the local coffee shop and feel right at home.
Many of us talked about nurturing our creative lives through writing, music, art and community involvement. Read more about that in New Mexico rancher and writer Laura Jean Schneider’s Ranch Diaries column here.
I came away with a renewed sense of hope and validation. No matter what industry you’re in – tech, construction, real estate, etc., women have a unique perspective that is often unrepresented in the boardroom. We have a lot to contribute and a lot to learn from each other. All we have to do is tap into it and then watch great things happen.
Authors Note: This article first appeared on my blog: https://localfood.wordpress.com/