February 26, 2024

Important for women to serve as role models, mentors

ROCK ISLAND, Ill. — Embracing the role model within themselves is important for women in agriculture.

“Any time I have the opportunity to engage with a group of women that love agriculture as much as I do is a good day,” said Kim Kidwell, associate chancellor for strategic partnerships and initiatives at the University of Illinois.

“Relationship building, mentorship and wisdom sharing is where the magic happens,” said Kidwell, who spoke during the Women in Agriculture conference presented by Illinois Farm Bureau.

Kidwell, who did not grow up on a farm, was exposed to the agriculture industry by her uncle who operated an Angus cattle farm.

“My mom gave me the permission to be curious and pursue something I love,” she said.

While studying at the U of I, Kidwell met a professor that changed her life.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and he gave a lecture about corn and lit it up,” she said. “I talked to him after class and that started an incredible journey for me as a plant breeder.”

After graduating from the U of I, Kidwell completed her master’s degree and doctorate in plant breeding and plant genetics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She developed more than 25 wheat varieties for Washington state farmers.

“Every day I knew why I went to work,” she said. “The product of our research program ended up in farmers’ fields.”

Now over half of enrollment in agricultural programs in land-grant universities across the country is female, Kidwell said.

“When I was a student at the U of I in the mid-80s, I’d go to class and there was one or two other women in the class,” said Kidwell, who was the first female dean for the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the U of I. “When you go to classes in ACES now, there’s a female contingency that’s fierce.”

When women are empowered in agriculture, food production increases, she said.

“The challenge is women don’t have the same access to assets as men,” she said. “In developing countries, that’s seed and fertilizer so their yields tend to be lower.”

Increasing food production by 4%, Kidwell said, adds $12 trillion to the global economy.

“That’s a powerful impact, but the playing field is not exactly level,” Kidwell said.

“Thirty-one percent of American farmers are women and the impact on the economy is almost $31 billion,” she said. “Women are very entrepreneurial in spirit and 67% of the women that farm have education beyond high school.”

Role modeling and mentoring might be one of the most important things women can do to create a brighter future for agriculture, Kidwell said.

“Not just with young women, but young people in general because we have fewer kids coming off farms,” she said. “We have to get more people excited about what we do and to do that they have to see it, feel it and love it.”

Kidwell talked about several inspirational women involved in the agricultural industry, including Temple Grandin, a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University.

“She is remarkable and she revolutionized the livestock industry with handling methods to reduce stress on animals,” she said. “She is also autistic and Temple transformed that challenge into an asset.”

Temple uses her platform to talk about the value of looking at things from a different perspective, Kidwell said.

“She motivates people to embrace the possibility of people who aren’t exactly like us and she’s an influencer,” she said.

Chavonda Jacobs-Young is the nominee for undersecretary of agriculture for research, education and economics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The vote should happen soon and she will be the first African-American and female to serve in this role if approved,” Kidwell said. “She started the Three Sisters Project with the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences.”

Kidwell also highlighted Beth Ford.

“She is the first female CEO of Land O’Lakes and she’s been named one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders and most powerful women,” Kidwell said.

“Look up the ‘60 Minutes’ segment she did, it was incredible,” she said. “This is what we need in agriculture, someone to tell a story that’s compelling to people beyond our circle.”

Ford is also working on the American Connection Project to bring broadband to rural communities.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee founded the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation in East St. Louis to work with kids.

“She is using athletics and leadership as a model to help support kids in transitioning to better economic situations,” Kidwell said. “Jackie is a great athlete and then she learned how to eat well and use food for fuel and she became an Olympian.”

A new project is in progress in East St. Louis.

“We developed the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Food, Agriculture and Nutrition Initiative to build a center there and we hope it becomes a demonstration site for people to learn how to use food production as a youth development tool for that community,” Kidwell said.

The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is also involved in the innovation center.

“We’re trying to build a system where we mentor students to get into the agricultural community in St. Louis so they come back to the area and stimulate economic development in their community,” Kidwell said. “It’s all about combining assets and entities in one area to do something together so we want this to be a training site.”

Kidwell encourages women to tell young people what they love about their work in agriculture.

“Be loud and proud about that because the change agent that you can be in your circle will really matter,” she said.

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor