Speaking of women in agriculture

Michaele Niehaus The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa
Farm Forum

MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa — Despite having served as the second-highest-ranking official in the United States Department of Agriculture, Krysta Harden still must overcome the obstacles of being a woman in a male-dominated field.

“That’s probably the one thing that’s still frustrating and disappointing,” Harden said on April 12 at Iowa Wesleyan University’s John Wesley Holland Student Union Hall in Mount Pleasant. “When I look at what I’ve accomplished, it’s a pretty good bit. I’m still questioned, I’m still challenged in this industry.”

Harden was the keynote speaker at IW’s Belle Babb Mansfield Symposium, named for the Iowa Wesleyan graduate who became the first woman licensed to practice law in the United States. The student-led discussion, “The Relevance of Being Rural,” featured a series of questions asked of Harden by presidential scholar Darby Massner, an IW senior and rural housing development intern for the Henry County USDA office who will start her first semester of IW’s management leadership program in the fall.

Harden now is the leader of external affairs and chief sustainability officer for Corveta Agriscience — Agriculture Division of DowDuPont. Prior to that, she was the USDA deputy secretary. She is one of only three women to have been appointed to the position.

“When I started thinking about a career in agriculture, there were no women mentors,” Harden said of her start in Washington, D.C., where she was staff director for the House subcommittee on Peanuts and Tobacco as well as chief of staff and press secretary for former Rep. Charles Hatcher, who represented her hometown district. “There were two women that had higher level jobs, positions in the private sector, but they were not people that I wanted to be like. They were just not folks that I was going to look up to.”

So she looked for women role models in other industries.

“Very interestingly, it was women in the oil and gas industry that befriended me,” Harden said. “They took an interest in me and they became the women who said ‘you can do this.'”

Those five women got her involved in golf and investment groups, things that would help her better communicate with men in the ag industry later on. She went on to become senior vice president of Gordley Associates, a government relations corporation, before becoming CEO of the National Association of Conservation Districts and then assistant secretary for Congressional relations for the USDA.

Each of Harden’s bosses were men, and each of them had sons. Though she felt they supported her and gave her enough freedom to push herself, she felt a woman boss, or at least a man boss with daughters, would take more of an interest in her career trajectory.

“I always thought that I wanted to work for a female. I always thought that I wanted to work for a man who had daughters, because they would understand and be more interested in my career as a female because they would care about their daughters,” she said.

She remained in contact with her mentors from the oil and gas industry, and in 2013, four of those women would travel across the country to watch as Harden was sworn in as deputy secretary.

During the next three years, with the support of then-USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Harden led the implementation of the 2014 Farm Bill and launched the Women in Agriculture Mentoring Program.

“I wanted to really promote and raise the attention on women in agriculture,” she said.

After all, women throughout the world work on farms. In many countries, Harden said, women take on the bulk of the farm work, yet they are denied the right to inherit or own land. Among Harden’s favorite things to do as deputy secretary was traveling to those countries and challenging those ways of thinking.

That’s not to say gender discrimination isn’t present in the U.S. Harden still endures milder forms of it from colleagues and customers, but that just makes her push harder in the hopes that it won’t be something today’s young women experience.

“I really do hope that you won’t have to have gone through the things that people like me have,” Harden said. “I hope we’re making enough of a difference for you that you won’t have to feel that.”