DECATUR, Ill. — Hundreds of high school and college ladies traveled to the 10th annual Women Changing the Face of Agriculture event hosted by the Illinois Agri-Women.

“Decatur is the perfect place for this event because it was recently ranked No. 1 in the nation for ag bioscience employment,” said Denise Crews, vice president of academic services, Richland Community College. “We are home to the North American headquarters of ADM and Tate and Lyle’s largest corn processing plant.”

Crews encouraged the young women to think about attending the community college on their education journey.

“We have an incredible education waiting for you, amazing internship opportunities and employment opportunities,” she said. “We’re so happy you’re here.”

The daylong career exploration program kicked off with a panel discussion of four ladies involved in the agricultural industry.

Panel members included Emily Pomrening who is an American sign language teacher at Plainfield North High School and also is a partner in Double B Meats with her brother where she sells beef, pork and chicken at farmers markets.

Pomrening did not plan to get involved with the family business.

“I thought the farm was stinky and I was ready to move into the city because I thought living in town was glamorous,” the teacher said. “I studied education at Illinois State University, and then my husband and I moved to the city.”

However, Pomrening found the connection to her family’s farm was missing.

“My brother started selling meat at farmers markets, and I decided that would be a great opportunity for me to share my story of where I grew up and make some money doing it,” she said.

Taylor Ruth grew up riding horses and studied microbiology at the University of Florida.

“I was on the equestrian team, and I joined Sigma Alpha and loved it,” said Ruth, assistance professor of agricultural communications, College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois.

“I started working in the horticulture lab where I did genetic research on corn and I learned I didn’t like being in the lab,” Ruth explained. “But I enjoyed talking about my research with consumers and I realized a lot of people have misconceptions about agriculture and the technology we use.”

Ruth’s focus turned to bridging the gap between scientists and farmers.

“I wanted to help the public understand what we’re doing, so I got my masters and Ph.D. degrees in agricultural communications,” she said.

Most of Mariah Dale Anderson’s career has been in the agricultural industry and she is currently the process and technology project manager at Country Financial.

“My husband and I met in the blue and gold jackets, we both grew up on small farms and we were longing to be back in agriculture,” she explained.

About 10 years ago, the couple purchased five acres that were just down the road from a pumpkin farm.

“We saw the opportunity to grow fall mums which I knew nothing about and we grew 300 mums the first year,” Anderson said.

“We learned quickly that we love working with customers and educating them on how we grow flowers,” Anderson said. “Ten years later, we grow 15,000 fall mums, and we have 10 acres of produce that we sell to two grocery stores in our community.”

Katie Sellmeyer studied at the U of I and taught agricultural education for two years. She also worked for Dow AgroSciences and Pioneer Seeds.

“I’m currently transitioning on the family farm, and my dad and I have a cow-calf herd and we have a feedlot,” said Sellmeyer, about E&S Cattle Co., near Maroa.

The ladies answered these questions during the discussion:

What does agriculture mean to you?

Pomrening: “Agriculture to me is my history and the work that goes into it. Now that I have a farm stand it means sharing my story and getting to touch back to my roots. I realize I’m a salesperson and agriculture is pitching and selling our farm to the general public.”

Anderson: “Agriculture to me is diversity — it’s the farmer working in the field, the lab technician working in the lab and the communicators telling the story. There is so much diversity in agriculture, and that’s why I’m so passionate about it.”

Sellmeyer: “To me, it’s job security because we are the largest industry, and we have jobs available. It’s ever-changing, and you can go from one sector into another while building on what you learned. You don’t have to stay in one career path. You can venture to other areas.”

Ruth: “I think about the opportunities to make connections with people and farmers, as well as the opportunity to feed people, help enhance our nutrition and help others in the world.”

Why does consumer opinion matter?

Ruth: “This is a critical thing for us to talk about the future of agriculture because we could come up with new products that make agriculture more sustainable and environmentally friendly. But if people don’t want to purchase that produce or eat it, it’s not helping us. We need to make sure we’re always thinking about the consumer to understand what they want to know and what food they want, so we can engage them in conversations. Until we have that relationship with consumers, we’re going to have a hard time moving forward as we create new technologies to enhance agricultural production.”

Why is it important to tell your customers about what you do on the farm?

Pomrening: “It’s about getting those repeat customers to come back to the farmers markets because we work really hard to produce the product we provide to a consumer. I have someone asking questions because I’m their farmer. I may not be hauling a calf in at minus-20 degree weather because that’s my brother’s job. They want to get to know me and where their food is coming from. I teach them about how to cook their food and give them recipes, so they come back and know I’m going to be there.”

Anderson: “I agree it’s that relationship building piece that’s very critical to our farm. It connects a face behind the food and flowers we produce for our community. Customers have concerns about GMOs and chemicals, and that’s our opportunity to ask why it concerns them. That opens the door for some interesting conversations. We’re not organic so we talk about why we put this chemical on if there is an infestation in our crop because we don’t want it to spread. It’s just like if their child scraps his knee and they put neosporan on the knee to prevent the infection from spreading. We use that example, and they understand we’re not out there spraying chemicals all over our crops, but we’re being good stewards of the land.”

For more information about the Women Changing the Face of Agriculture, go to: www.womenchangingthefaceofagriculture.com.

Martha Blum can be reached at 815-223-2558, ext. 117, or marthablum@agrinews-pubs.com. Follow her on Twitter at: @AgNews_Blum.

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