About one of every five principal operators of Oregon farms and ranches are female. While that may not seem like a high percentage, it is ten times the percentage found in Georgia. The comparison made quite an impression on the US Department of Agriculture’s number two ranking official who stopped in Oregon this week to conduct a roundtable on women in agriculture.
“I see that 20 percent of the principal operators in Oregon are women, while in Georgia– where I’m from– it’s about 2 percent,” USDA Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden told the audience at the roundtable in Silverton’s Oregon Garden. “Women in some other parts of the country are involved in agriculture, but may not be as valued or recognized. You in Oregon are so lucky that you have the richness and tradition [of women being involved in agriculture] that it is probably taken for granted. It is eye-opening for me to hear you all talk about no challenges or barriers facing women who are farming or ranching. This is the first roundtable and first state of all I have attended where that has been said.”
The USDA Deputy Secretary has been interested in the opportunities and challenges facing women in agriculture, and ways to empower and build up the next generation of women leaders. Nationally, more women want to get into the business of farming but don’t necessarily find it easy. Oregon may be an exception. Harden has conducted women in agriculture roundtables in other states but has rarely spoken to a full room. The fact that many females, active in the day-to-day operations, took time off during a busy period on the farm to attend the Oregon roundtable impressed Harden.
“There was a lot of energy in the room– a lot of great, bright women doing wonderful things. I loved our panelists, I thought they had a lot of spunk. I enjoyed learning from them.”
The Oregon panelists included Shelly Boshart-Davis of Boshart Trucking and BOSSCO Trading of Tangent, the National Women for Agriculture Mom of the Year; Barbara Boyer, owner and operator of Boyer Family Farm in McMinnville and member of the State Board of Agriculture; Amy Doerfler, operator of Doerfler Farms in Aumsville; and, Molly Pearmine-McCargar, operator of Pearmine Farms in Gervais and current president of the Agri-Business Council of Oregon. The roundtable was moderated by Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba, who is the only female director in ODA history.
“For us in Oregon, women do well,” Coba said as she kicked off the event. “We are an integral part of agriculture and continue to be a growing part of the industry.”
When asked about barriers to being successful based on their sex, none of the panelists could pinpoint a specific example.
“To be honest, I haven’t felt any barriers,” says Boshart-Davis. “I grew up around strong women who were farmers themselves. They opened the doors for us.”
Boshart-Davis, the oldest of four girls, grew up on a grass seed farm and drove a combine at age 12. The four daughters were treated by their father no different than had they been boys.
“You always run into people in life who may treat you differently, whether they are men or women, but you see that in any industry. The only barriers that exist are the ones we set up for ourselves.”
Boyer, who is also the first female chair of the Yamhill Soil and Water Conservation District and manages the McMinnville Farmers’ Markets, runs an organic hay operation with her husband.
“Overcoming any barriers requires going out there, doing the work and proving yourself,” she said.
Doerfler, who farms grass seed with her two brothers, said when she started combining as a teenager, some of the men didn’t think that was a place for a female. Now, 30 years later, things have changed.
“I attend a lot of meetings where I’m the only female, but I don’t feel like I’m the only female,” she said. “Maybe because I was raised on the farm with my two brothers, I just feel like I’m one of them and assume the men feel the same way.”
Pearmine-McCargar and her brother took over their family’s diversified farm in 2011. After growing up on the farm, she became a teacher and then a stay-at-home mom until starting to keep the farm’s books. Now she’s involved in nearly all aspects of the operation while she and her husband raise four daughters.
“I attended a meeting where I spoke about our operation and our four daughters,” she said. “One of the questions I got from a man was who will take over the farm when I retire? I had to point out that I’m running the farm now and I don’t need to keep trying for a boy because I’m sure my daughters can handle the farm, too.”
Deputy Secretary Harden underscored the importance of having a woman’s voice on agricultural issues.
“This is not about [one sex] being better than the other or that we need more women in agriculture because men aren’t doing a good job,” she said. “It’s about making sure we have a full voice. Women are great spokespersons for agriculture, according to the studies. Consumers like to hear from women who farm, who are involved in agriculture, who are making decisions themselves and feeding their own families. Women have that credibility. So we need to make sure that voice is heard and that we have strong female leaders in agriculture.”
Harden appreciates getting out of Washington DC at times to see what is happening on the ground. She feels having women in agriculture share their experiences can help her make better decisions.
“Again, this is not about women not being in agriculture. This is about making sure we value women’s contributions and the role they have played– whether it’s bookkeeping, marketing, buying the seed or planting it, it’s all a vital part of the farm operation,” said Harden.
Following the roundtable, Deputy Secretary Harden met with Governor Brown and completed her visit this week by touring a local hop growing operation– run by a woman. USDA statistics most often list the man or husband as the principal operator of farms and ranches even if a woman or wife shares equally in the daily decision making and activities of the operation. Nonetheless, the USDA roundtable indicates there is no lack of opportunity, leadership, or important contributions involving women– at least not in Oregon.
For more information, contact Bruce Pokarney at (503) 986-4559.