Connecting women in common goal for ag

Farm Forum

In a phone interview with USDA’s Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Krysta Harden, passion filled her voice as she detailed her thoughts about women involved in agriculture. Speaking from the heart, she related how it feels to be in one of the top ag positions in the country (since August 2013) and to be seen as a woman in ag. She expressed her appreciation for being able to serve in her role and thankful for the values she learned growing up on the family peanut farm near Camilla, Ga.

Q: How do you juggle being a woman in ag and the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture?

Harden: “Being Deputy Secretary and serving as a role model for women are all rolled into one. I really don’t know where it starts and how it splits off, it’s all part of the job. I’m the daughter of farmer, and come from a family of farmers. I was connected to ag at an early age. Being the oldest child in my family, my daddy and momma made sure I learned the business. I recognized crops in the field before I could read or write.”

Q: How can your voice help those women who are learning to drive a tractor, struggling to pull a calf or making marketing decisions?

Harden: “I hope my involvement and stature in USDA brings attention to the involvement of women. I want people to have the conversation about the impact women can have in this industry.

“I do think ag has been changing; it is less about manual labor, more about technology, science and good business sense. I believe any woman can do that. Women turn disadvantages to advantages, as they know how to get things done. Learning from my momma, I know women can use those skills.

“We try at USDA to reach everyone. We continue to update our website with helpful information. If we don’t have the answers, we have connections with partners with links for our customers. That reaches from the land grant universities, to the Farm Credit system, to farm organizations. We provide a clearinghouse for whatever type of ag interests people.”

Q: Why is there a need for a woman’s mentoring network?

Harden: “As I’ve traveled across the country, I can see there is a need for women to connect and learn from each other. The women tell me, “I’m involved, I want to be taken seriously,” and so through the mentoring program we match people together and encourage discussions. Sometimes that is by connecting people by email or through phone calls. There are so many questions. Women want to talk about their situations. They want to have friends who understand what they do. This provides a network and opportunity to form mentoring circles.

“It’s difficult for women in any business to raise their hand to say, ‘How should I do X?’ They don’t want to be thought of as silly or uninvolved. I see my job as a way to help women get over some of the hurdles and empower them.

“We also need men who are enlightened and care to help in the process. It’s not always about the differences between the two sexes. Empowering women is a way to keep the industry strong, by highlighting the best voices we have.

“Consumers trust women and women need to hear from other women on these critical issues. Consumers are feeding their families and know women relate to their struggles. There are tough issues in ag and the women who purchase most of the food want answers.

“We need so desperately to hear the voices of those involved in the industry. We, as women, need to do that by speaking out, and getting involved.”

Harden said she was reminded of her grandmother’s quilting group. Working individually, a quilt could be made but coming together and supporting each other, the group crafted a beautiful work of art. Supporting each other when moving into leadership roles is extremely important.

Q: What are some of the hurdles?

Harden: “This is a traditional industry. Women have always been involved. They’ve been involved in the hard work in fields, in marketing and in dairies. Most times the women are equal partners, but since it’s a traditional relationship, it’s slower to change than in other industries. And in a traditional setting, the voices heard most often are those of men. Changes are being made to empower women, as their voice is so critical.”

Q: Boards and leadership roles lack female representation. What do women need to do to be respectful yet forceful in the ag field?

Harden: “When I talk to the commodity boards, they are mostly made up of men. We need to have boards that are more reflective of those who live on farms and ranches.

“I learn that women are very involved in their farms and operations. They are also the ones who take care of the family and may have another whole job off the farm. Some may make the choice to stay at home with the children and have their spouse attend meetings. Some other women are more articulate, better able to communicate and do speak out.

“There are ways to encourage women. One very local way is run for the FSA local committee. We really need women to be involved on the county and state committees, on the check off boards, and on co-op boards. I really encourage women to be interested in their industry.”

Harden said that women need to see themselves as leaders.

“Many are leaders, but they need encouragement to identify themselves.”

Harden noted that more women are going to agriculture schools. Others are stepping up to highlight what it means to go ‘from field to the fork.’

She warned that women shouldn’t be on a board to be a token. It comes down to who is the best leader, who is the most articulate, who is creditable. Many times the answer can be a woman in agriculture.

“I don’t believe younger women are going to sit on the sidelines,” Harden said. “These are sharp women who are not waiting to be involved. They have been leaders in 4-H and FFA. The traditional roles will evolve and change quickly.

“This topic is close to my heart. It’s a topic that comes up everywhere I go. Women talk to me. They are all sizes, ages, and come from ranches, dairies, and grain operations. No matter where I am, these women tell me they are very engaged in their own communities. By bringing in female leaders to address some of the issues, we can be stronger as an industry. It is not an ‘either’ or an ‘or’ situation. We need as many voices speaking out for the industry as we can. We are one percent feeding 99 percent of the rest of United States.”

Q: From your experience and in the position you hold, how can you help the department of ag to best serve women? As the farming/ranching population ages, will this change?

Harden: “Go to our local USDA offices and learn more about the industry. Tell them ‘I have questions.’

“There are a lot of groups working with women. For example, Annie’s Project is very important. I went to the graduation for Maryland/Delaware students and was struck by the diversity and the different ages of the women involved. There were those who have had another career coming back to farm; a young woman who has a passion for land and says, ‘I sure want to farm.’ Women who are involved in a large operation, and they say ‘We want our own business.’ It was amazing to me, in this one class the richness of the discussion. They were offered the tools through the class to better understand farming/ranching and to know how to do a business plan.”

This appreciation is part of the heritage passed on to Harden from her parents through three generations.

Harden said, “My mom signed every (financial) note, and she brought half of the farm to their marriage. My mother was involved in every business decision. Financially, she could be the CFO in any business.” Harden learned by example and wants other women to recognize their strengths and feel empowered to talk about issues and take on leadership roles.

Q: It is extremely difficult to begin farming unless there is a family connection or someone close is able to work out special terms. How can you help to ensure that beginning farmers, especially women, have access to the programs and support they need?

Harden said it will only get harder unless access to land improves.

“It’s a critical component. We can’t do things the way we’ve always done it.”

Harden said that she and her sister are looking at hard conversations now. Neither has children. What do they do to make sure the family land stays in agriculture? Will the family legacy of working that land end with them? How can it be kept from making it a part of a bigger farm?

Harden said some options encourage an incubator system where women and veterans rent the land at reduced prices. There are some creative solutions out there and ones that have to be faced head on.

For young people coming out of college, unless they inherit the land, they need to be talking to people in the Farm Credit systems, land grant colleges, and succession planners. There are tax issues that need to be addressed, and incentives that will help these young folks come into ag.

Those farmer/ranchers who don’t have children need to seriously look at what will happen to the land. Harden encouraged them to think about the future.

“The big question is how can that land stay in the hands of those involved in agriculture? Is there an opportunity to rent it at a reduced rate to some young woman who wants to start farming? What about a veteran? The land will be gobbled up by someone and planning can help those who own it now to direct what the future may be.”

When Harden stands in front of groups of men, she reminds them, “Don’t forget your daughters, granddaughters and nieces when it comes to passing on the family farm. The climate has changed. There is a place for young women. I encourage the men to have a conversation and take the financial and legal step to make sharing that legacy a reality instead of an abstraction.”

Q: How will the mentoring program will be helpful?

Harden: “We have a regular newsletter that provides information on ways to get involved with the mentoring network, highlights women in the group and gives details on upcoming networking opportunities. We have over 600 people signed up so far. Right now we are concentrating on women in ag roundtables with members of Congress.

“By using a list-serve format for the program, women can share their stories and that can be a wake-up call to others. The stories we have received thus far have shown us that women in ag are seeking mentorship and looking towards the future.

“(As an example) One person who has been in another career may have basic questions such as, ‘What should I do when this happens, how do I set up a marketing plan, what should I do if I get hailed out?’

“The Women in Agriculture Mentoring Network will provide a give-and-take discussion in a closed environment, administered by a dynamic group of young women and men tasked to keep information fresh. We want the women to connect in ways that are most helpful to those signing up. We want to make sure it meets the needs of the group.”

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