For many generations, the heads of farm operations across America were likely to be men clad in overalls wearing a cap emblazoned with the logo of a local seed dealership or cooperative.
Back then, most women were viewed as homemakers who raised the children, kept the family fed and clothed, and were delegated as the indispensable "go-fer" who ran for spare parts, delivered meals out to the field and kept watch over sows during farrowing – all the while keeping hearth and home running efficiently.
Although many of these duties were important to the success of the farm, they were often looked upon as secondary in nature. Today women are stepping into the forefront and playing more prominent roles on the farm and in careers in the agribusiness industry once dominated by their male counterparts.
"My grandma did all those behind the scenes jobs that made the farm tick including all the bookwork," said Fox Valley Technical College graduate Dariann Novitski. "Now we're starting to step out from behind the label of just the "farmer's wife" and pursuing agricultural careers of our own."
This gender shift is especially evident in technical colleges and universities across the nation including Wisconsin. Over half of the students graduating from agriculture programs at Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC) and Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) are women, and enrollment of female students in agricultural majors at UW-Platteville and the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) at UW-Madison is steadily climbing as well.
Barb Davis recalls a conversation with a friend who remembers attitudes once held toward women entering male-dominated fields of study.
"She was told by an advisor that agronomy and animal science were no place for women," Davis said. "Thankfully those attitudes have fallen by the wayside over the years. Women are not only capable, but they're making headway in this industry."
Growing up on the family farm near Prairie du Sac, Beth Yanke says chores and responsibilities were assigned with little regard to gender.
“I was raised with a brother and sister and it didn’t matter who was helping dad,” Yanke said. “We were each given the same chores to do. Some of us were better at some tasks than others, which I feel is the same in any career path nowadays.”
The UW-Platteville student plans to work out in the agribusiness field for a few years and then plans to return home and take over the family farm.
Sara Kroll also has a deep connection to her family’s 35-cow operation in Kewaunee County, and like her siblings, is able to carry out almost every function on the family farm—even breeding the cows, a skill she learned while pursuing an Animal Science degree at NWTC.
“Some people are surprised that I’m A.I. certified, but it really isn’t about being male or female, but being knowledgeable about what you’re doing,” Kroll said. “My female friends also handle a lot of the jobs on the farm once considered a man’s job.”
FVTC graduate Taylor Klein has plans to combine her small herd of cows with her boyfriend’s herd of cows on a dairy operation in Dodge County. Immersed in the farm community all of her life, Klein says the achievements and ambitions of women are more widely accepted today.
“I haven’t run into that bias where people believe a woman shouldn't be running or carrying on a dairy farm,” Klein said. “I have several friends who have gone home and taken over the family operation as opposed to their brothers doing it. From where I’m from that’s common.
"We grew up learning to do the same things as our brothers and it’s much more common for (girls) to be driven towards those same jobs and positions held by men,” she added.
Despite not growing up on a production agriculture operation, Micheala Slind wanted to work in an agriculture-related field. A friend persuaded her to become a Dairy Science major upon entering CALS at UW-Madison.
“I knew I wanted to work in a field where I would get to interact with people every day and be a part of a team,” said Slind who will take on the role of a dairy consultant and nutritionist with Cargill Animal Nutrition after graduating this spring.
Slind said she isn’t surprised at all at the growing trend of women seeking degrees in agriculture.
“A career in agriculture has always been extremely appealing to me and I think many of my classmates see the same opportunities,” Slind said. “A chance to work outside, with ever-changing technology and being able to care for something that provides food for others is pretty cool.”
Veterinarian and FVTC Ag Instructor Lori Nagel says that many barriers that once held women back from entering the field have now been lifted thanks to advances in technology.
“There are better cattle handling facilities and means to restraining animals. And with better automation, whether it be sorting animals on farm for treatment or automated milking systems or calf feeders, all of those things make a physically easier job that is more desirable for women to consider,” Nagel said. “And with these limitations lifted, women are finding some pretty exciting opportunities out in the industry or they’re feeling really secure about going back to the farm and taking on an active role.”
Slind had the opportunity to study overseas in the Netherlands and believes that women bring a different perspective to an operation that may have been previously overlooked.
“I’ve seen firsthand the positive effects of women handling animals, especially calves on the farm,” Slind said. “They tend to bring more patience and understanding to a situation and in the case of caring for calves, attention to detail goes a long way.”
NWTC Ag Instructor Wendy Vandenboom says she has also noticed a difference in nurturing characteristics displayed by her female students.
“While all students are animal care and well-being focused, there is a different level of emotion most of the young ladies display when dealing with cows or calves,” she said. “I think employers also feel that females are “better caregivers” in general. A stereotype for sure, but may have some merit in many instances.”
Klein says having a direct hand in nurturing an animal from birth on up through its life-cycle is gratifying.
“An animal depends solely on you to provide everything they need to grow and keep them healthy,” Klein said. “You take them from being a young – sometimes sickly – calf, push them and watch them grow, breeding them and then watching them produce. You see the full circle from your first calf and you do the same thing over and over again, from one generation to the next. That’s so rewarding.”
Novitske says some of the misconception about agriculture being a male-only industry may stem from a misunderstanding of the scope of agriculture.
“When I was young, I was blind to all the opportunities that agriculture offered. Attending college I realized that there’s a lot more to farming than working on a farm,” said Novitske.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, women are making decisions on everything from bookkeeping to crop security.
“Women are making a lot of the important decisions today on the farms they run or visit,” said Davis. “That’s really not shocking to people working in the agribusiness industry today.”
Klein says her interest in cattle genetics has increased over the years since providing mating input on her string of show cows. She expects that input to continue in her partnership with her boyfriend.
“Of course, breeding decision are something that we’ll discuss, but I have the final say over my animals,” she said with a laugh.
Novitske says women have always been an integral part of the agricultural landscape for generations. Only now they’re being recognized for it.
“Many people do respect us just as much as men now,” Novitske said. “We’ve always been around. But now women are taking leadership roles in fields like agronomy, genetics and even production agriculture and they’re doing well, too.”
Klein hopes to find a home in both worlds: a career in the agribusiness world and a niche running her own farm.
“I big part of why I want to stay in agriculture is tradition. Our farm has been in the family for generations and I see just how hard my parents are working side by side,” Klein said. “I hope I can have that same passion and dedication and make them proud by working in the ag industry.”