Opening doors: Today’s women in ag do it all

Vincennes University Professor Susan Brocksmith talks to students about one of the Brocksmith farm fields, illustrating soil types and drainage structures.

INDIANAPOLIS — Women, like men, can do anything in agriculture. And today they are doing more than ever.

A panel of women shared their stories at the Indiana Farm Bureau Young Farmer Conference in Indianapolis.

How has being a woman shaped your career in the agricultural industry?

Leah Beyer: I was the first female president of my FFA chapter in the ‘90s, and my male ag teacher got calls from parents because, “How could he let a female get elected to be president?” In the ‘90s. We’re not talking that long ago. That was when I realized, “Oh, this gender thing is real. It’s not just something I read about in books.”

But, let me be honest, it’s not been hard to work with men in the industry. It’s been harder to work with the women. Women are pro-women, as long as it’s them. What killed me the most was the first time someone in the industry said, “I have a hard time paying you this much because it took me 30 years in the industry to make this much money.” I was like, “You’re going to squash me because you had to work harder?”

So, I’ve really taken on a view that as I grow in my career, in leadership positions, whether it’s my community, whether it’s my job, that it’s my job to pull other women along and not put my foot on their back. This is not about me. This is about our industry.

It’s happened to me professionally and in organizations where they’ll say, “Well, we didn’t give you this role because we know you’re busy.” Well, I can make the decision on how busy I am. I’ve been asked who’s watching my children when I’m traveling. But none of my male colleagues ever get the question, “Who’s watching the children?”

Susan Brocksmith: It’s created some challenges. I will be honest, when I got hired by Monsanto, I truly believe I helped fill a quota for them. Being a female in a male world, it made me stronger. Going through that, I think we have such an opportunity now that we didn’t have when I started my career back in the ‘80s.

People have recognized it’s not the hard road because you’ve had predecessors and I had predecessors that helped clear that way and show that we as females can do the same things that males can do and have the intelligence to hit those marks. I still think there’s some more opportunity to keep that going.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t tears, there weren’t some things that went on, especially in the ‘80s and ‘90s, that I had to go through as a female in the ag chemical world as a sales rep. It just took some time to stand up and say, “Hey, I really don’t appreciate that.”

Males are confused; “Do I open the door? Do I not? What can I say?” It’s going to take us to help those leadership roles to say, “Hey, it’s OK, you can open a door. I’d still like that.” They’ve gotten mixed messages, depending on which female they deal with. If we can help define those lines, I think that there’s so much more opportunity.

Kelly Whiteman Snipes: When I got married, I really struggled with my identity and what was expected of me on the farm. That was really hard, especially when all the females in my husband’s family did not help on the farm. They didn’t do the books. They didn’t run any of the equipment. You just didn’t see that.

When Dan and I first started dating, as soon as harvest came around, I said, “Where do you want me?” “What?” “Well, I’m going to help you farm. If I’m going to be here, I’m not just going to ride with you. I want to help.” That really bothered his grandmother and some of the other women in the family. It took me a long time to be comfortable with the role that I wanted to have.

I think it’s really important to identify what you want. Figure out what you want to do. Don’t let stereotypes and other people dictate that role that you want to fulfill and you’ll be so much happier.

One of my biggest pet peeves is all harvest long everybody in the community will always say, “How’s Dan getting along with harvest? How far along is he?” And I’m always like, “We are almost done” Or, “We are halfway through.” I try not to be rude about it, but I always correct with a “we,” just to kind of put that little seed out there that we’re doing that together.

Joyce Kron: In my situation, I’ve never thought of myself as a woman in agriculture. I’m a farmer. And I just happen to be female. My mother is 80 years old. She got married when she was 17, and she married a poor farmer. I was raised by a woman who did what women didn’t do in that day.

In that day, women, their job was to raise their children and take care of the home. Well, my mom did that, but my mom also was driving the tractor, running the grain truck, feeding livestock. My mom did it all, and that was my first female role model. So, I learned in my life I can do whatever I want to do. There’s nothing to hold me back.

How are you able to juggle a full-time off-the-farm career, on-the-farm work and be a mom without the guilt? Or, maybe there is guilt?

Kron: There’s always guilt. You can’t be a mom and not have guilt. It’s always there. You just have to learn what you can do. We can’t do it all. We think we should. We think we can. But we can’t. The younger generation, you’re more partners in your parenting than in my day, which helps with the guilt. It doesn’t have to be mom watching the kids. Dad can do that, too.

But don’t forget to take care of yourself in the process. I think that’s what we do a lot of the times. Just accept how you deal with what life gives you. Rely on your partner and rely on your friends to help you through these issues, if they come up.

Beyer: I do not feel ashamed or guilty to admit that I hire a housekeeper. I am all in on my kids when I’m not at work. So, you have to give yourself forgiveness that you’re not doing it all.

Whiteman Snipes: Communication with my spouse has been extremely important because sometimes when I’m down at a meeting in Indianapolis or I’m in the tractor working ground instead of being at home and doing the laundry and putting hot meals on the table, I do feel some guilt there, or at least I did at one time.

I’ve been very open with Dan and I’ve said, “Look, I want to have equal parts with you on the farm and help you, but I also need X, Y and Z from you, in return. So, if you pick up groceries on your way home from work and drop them off, I’ll make sure I put some sandwiches together before we go out and farm tonight. If you do the laundry tomorrow, I’ll do it the next day.” That’s the kind of household that we have.

I definitely think that our moms are jealous. They wish they had that. My dad has never touched a vacuum cleaner or done laundry in his life, but Dan knows how to do both.

Brocksmith: My husband and I were getting married, and his friends pulled him aside and said, “Do you realize you’re going to marry one of those type of women?” He’s telling me this, and I’m like, “OK what did they mean by that? What am I?” And he said, “Well, you’re not going to be barefoot and pregnant and take care of my every need.” And I said, “They’re right. If you want to call this off, call it off now because I am not one of those women.”

At least he had his eyes open because it takes a team. And, whether people want to admit it or not, especially in today’s world with both spouses working, it takes a team to raise those children. And if you have a passion for the farm and get those kids out there and work on the farm, it makes it easier for your spouses, your significant others, to understand that and the kids also understand that that’s a part of life.

That’s why, when they’re being hired, if they find out they come from a farming background, they get such a better up-one for them because they know what the value of hard work is. But it does take the communication, the teamwork.

What do you see for women in the future of agriculture — the opportunities, as well as the challenges?

Beyer: Everything I’m hearing is labor, labor, labor, labor. We as women, being the masters at multitasking, we’re going to figure out this labor issue. It’s going to be our women that figure out the technologies, the systems, the processes that are going to help us be able to do the same amount of work with less people. That’s our daily lives.

I don’t want us to diminish men. They offer so much. They offer a different perspective, and I think diversity is important. I think the world is ours to harness, and we don’t have to be apologetic about it.

Kron: Another issue we face is the attacks on our industry. I think that women are strong advocates for agriculture, that we’re a little more comfortable with the situation of spreading the word about what we do and how we do it, so that we can have a huge part in salvaging our industry because we have so many that are opposed to us.

Women are taking the voice and speaking for agriculture. We’ve got to be united in that and protect our industry so that we can continue and that our children and grandchildren can continue in this industry that we love so much.

Brocksmith: Facts don’t always matter. It all depends on perception. It’s up to us to speak to other females because they’re the ones who buy. The opportunity is there that we truly can be advocates for agriculture, but it’s going to take us to speak up.

Whiteman Snipes: As we continue getting more and more involved and working together alongside our partners, versus under them and staying at home while they’re going out and doing everything, I oftentimes worry, not just about us, but the men, as well, I worry a lot about burnout.

What’s your advice for others?

Kron: Realize in your life you can never change anyone else. You can only change how you react to that person and, therefore, that changes the whole situation. And pray daily and thank God for your blessings and open your heart and share your burden.

Beyer: You don’t deserve anything, so you better show up and work hard. Just because you got a college degree or just because you are farming with your parents or farming with your spouse doesn’t mean you deserve anything. So, if you don’t show up and work hard, that might be all you get.

You are only as successful as the people that are willing to follow you. So, think about how you are building a community. You’re going to have some tough days and you’re going to have some great days and it’s really important to have a community to share those with. You will personally be happier.

Brocksmith: Don’t be afraid to hear the word no. I’ve heard no more than I’ve ever heard yes in my lifetime, as a female, as a worker, as a businessperson, as a farmer. For every no that you get, strengthen your back and pull up your head. You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.

We get to choose our attitude every day we get up, whether we’re going to have a good day or bad day. Nothing ever goes right every day. I always have my challenges, but I know tomorrow the sun is still going to come up no matter what happened today.

Whiteman Snipes: I saw a good quote the other day that basically sums up a lot of the things that I’ve been studying and learning this past year: “You’re busy doubting yourself while so many people are intimidated by your potential.” As somebody who has been fairly insecure of her capabilities over the years, stop doubting yourself.

Use those God-given skills to make the most of what you want to do in your life. You never know who you’re going to impact and who is watching you. Stop being your own worst enemy.

James Henry can be reached at 815-223-2558, ext. 190, or jhenry@agrinews-pubs.com.

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