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Published March 01, 2011, 09:29 AM

Ag chemical sales rep is part of two major trends

HUNTER, N.D. — It didn’t work out for North Dakota farm girl Bridgette Readel to become a farmer.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

HUNTER, N.D. — It didn’t work out for North Dakota farm girl Bridgette Readel to become a farmer.

But her love of agriculture led to what she call “my version of farming” — selling agricultural chemicals in a five-county territory in eastern North Dakota.

“With my dad and brothers farming, there’s not a spot for me (in the family farm operation). So this is my way of farming, my way of interacting with agriculture,” she says of her career.

Readel reflects two major trends in American agriculture.

- The number of Americans farmers and ranchers is shrinking — down to about 1.2 million in 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — while the need for people in other ag careers is growing. About 24 million Americans now work in more than 300 million ag-related fields, according to the National FFA Organization.

- Women are playing a growing, increasingly diverse role in agriculture, in part because aging male baby boomers are retiring and need to be replaced. Baby boomers are the roughly 75 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964.

One sign of how much things have changed for women in agriculture:

Marsha VanLaere, an agronomist with Columbia Grain in Larimore, N.D., says her father, a farmer in southern Minnesota, was skeptical of her decision to study agronomy in college.

“He told me, ‘There are no jobs in agronomy for women,’” VanLaere says.

But she landed one anyway and, in the dozen years she’s been an agronomist, has seen the number of women in the profession grow rapidly.

“Things are really different now,” VanLaere says.

She attended college with Readel, whose sales territory includes Columbia Grain in Larimore.

Conditions have changed so much that Jennifer Arnhalt isn’t worried about potential roadblocks for women in agriculture.

Arnhalt, 22, is interested in an agricultural career after she graduates in 2012 from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn.

The communications major, who grew up on a farm in Wolverton, Minn., spent the past two summers as a sales intern under Readel’s supervision.

“What matters is being able to do the job,” Arnhalt says of women in agriculture.

Family farm background

Readel, 37, was raised on a family farm in Wishek, N.D., with small grains, beef and dairy.

Her dad and both brothers farm, while a sister and brother-in-law live nearby and have a cattle operation.

As a girl, Readel helped regularly on the farm, feeding cattle and driving truck, among other duties.

She also was active in high school FFA, “which really helped develop my attitude of progressive agriculture,” she says.

She graduated from North Dakota State University in Fargo with a degree in ag education and ag extension.

“I fully expected I would teach high school,” she says.

But she had several internships in college, including one with Indianapolis-based Dow AgroSciences, which later offered her a job.

Readel says she accepted the offer after deciding it was a better fit for her than teaching.

The idea of selling chemicals as a career never occurred to her when she was young.

“I had no idea my job even existed until I was a sophomore in college. I had no idea where chemical came from. I thought it just magically showed up at Farmers Union when Dad went to pick it up,” she says.

Readel, drawing on her own experience, urges college students to “take those internships. I can’t encourage that strongly enough, even if you’re going back to the farm” (after college).

Big sales territory

Readel has spent 14 years with Dow AgroSciences and originally was based in Hillsboro, N.D.

In 2003, she married and moved to Hunter, where her husband is the agronomy manager for Hunter Grain. Her territory includes Hunger Grain, but she isn’t the sales rep for it because of conflict-of-interest rules.

She serves five counties in eastern North Dakota: Cass, Traill, Steele, Nelson and Grand Forks. Wheat, corn, soybeans, sunflowers, canola, sugar beets and alfalfa are common in her territory.

“It’s nice to have the variety,” she says.

As a sales representative, she educates customers to make sure her company’s products “are used carefully, with good stewardship.”

She also needs to educate customers on how her company’s products fit with those of competitors.

Promoting her company’s products is only part of her job. Her many duties include approving new bulk tanks for products, following up on orders, helping to hire and mentor company interns and serving on company committees.

She’s typically on the road two to three days a week, driving 40,000 to 45,000 miles annually.

“I know a lot of shortcuts, gravel or otherwise,” she says,

She spends the rest of her time in her home office, handling paperwork and follow-up and “always preparing for what’s ahead,” she says.

“You work farmers’ hours. This is not an 8-to-5 job. You start early in the morning and keep going until you’ve got as much done in a day as you possibly can,” she says.

“It’s a year-round job. There’s no slow time in agriculture anymore.”

Ask questions and listen

Readel stresses that classes at NDSU helped prepare her for her job.

Even so, the early days were “baptism by fire. When you start, you play very close attention. The first couple of years, the best thing you do is listen and ask a lot of questions,” she says.

“If you give someone the wrong information, it’s going to go badly for everyone. The worst you can do as a sales rep is to lie to a guy and try to make up the answer. You tell him, ‘I don’t know. But I’ll find out,’” she says.

When a customer mentions having problems with a particular crop, Readel begins by asking questions.

“Where do you farm? When did you notice it (the problem)? What (chemical) did you use? When did you apply it? What was your weather like?” she says.

Communication skills — and the ability to keep emotions in check — are vital in her job, Readel says.

“You have to be able to communicate and communicate clearly. You have to find out what the true issue might be,” she says.

“Farming is a hotly emotional topic. When you’re in a field with a farmer who’s not happy with something that has happened, you have his income, his future, in your hands. You have to do you best to talk it through with him, be a professional,” she says.

Another necessary attribute is the ability to adjust to changes in agriculture, she says.

“As the industry changes, there will be new things that come along, new challenges. I look forward to those,” she says.

‘Tons of opportunities’

Readel says gender remains a factor, albeit a small and diminishing one, in her job.

“You still get someone who doesn’t quite have the faith. You just prove yourself. You give good, smart answers and recommendations and ask them a lot of questions to make you fit what their needs are,” she says

“If you’ve proven yourself and have a good reputation, it’s a lot easier,” she says.

She encourages more women to pursue agricultural careers.

“Agriculture in general is an employees’ market. We’re all looking for new people. With the attrition, as the baby boomers move to retirement, we need more qualified employees,” she says.

“For the women out there, there are tons of opportunities.”