The changing face of agriculture: More diverse roles for women

Women's ag role expands Women have been essential to Upper Midwest agriculture since the first homesteaders arrived. They've tended livestock, driven tractors, kept books, cared for their children and much more, traditionally concentrating on the...

Ashley Kohls has many roles in agriculture. One of them is serving as executive director of the Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association. (Derek Fletcher/Agweek)

Women's ag role expands

Women have been essential to Upper Midwest agriculture since the first homesteaders arrived. They've tended livestock, driven tractors, kept books, cared for their children and much more, traditionally concentrating on their family operation.

But women's role in area agricutlure is broader and more diverse than ever. Reflecting on what's happening in society overall, women increasingly work off their family farm or ranch and serve in positions once held almost exclusively by men.

"As far as agribusiness, I see it's changing across all the demographics. There's a growing number of women holding those positions. It's changing dramatically," says Amy Pravecek, president of South Dakota Women in Agriculture. Its members serve in a wide range of ag roles.

Pravecek is a territory business manager for Zoetis, which produces medicine and vaccinations for pets and livestock. She works with producers and ag businesses in western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming.


These statistics, from several surveys and studies conducted at different times, illustrate what's happening:

โ€ข A little more than half of all bachelor's degrees awarded in agriculture go to women, up from one in three 30 years ago.

โ€ข Some ag sectors have seen large percentage increases, albeit off a relatively small base, in women receiving bachelor's degrees.. For instance, the number of women earning bachelor's degrees in agricultural mechanization and engineering rose 49 percent from 2004 to 2012.

โ€ข Women in 2016 earned 52 percent of the doctorates awarded in biological and agricultural sciences. That was up from 48 percent in 2006.

โ€ข About 55 percent of veterinarians are women - a rate that will continue to rise. Women now account for more than 80 percent of veterinary medicine students.

Pravecek credits agribusinesses for encouraging women to train for and serve in positions once dominated by men.

Many women in positions traditionally held by men say they sometimes experienced skepticism or resistance or both from some agriculturalists, particularly older men.

"I think women who first filled those positions had a much harder time than women today. There were some older generations of men that were not very accepting of those women," Pravecek says.


"I don't think that perception is there anymore. Especially with the younger generation. To them, it doesn't matter if it's a man or woman," she says.

Women, especially ones helping to run a farm or ranch, still face challenges, Pravecek says.

Besides their on-farm duties, "They're still the primary caregivers for children at home. They still have household duties. So they're pulling double-duty in some ways," she says.

This week's edition of Agweek includes the second installment of a three-part series on the changing face of agriculture. It features Ashley Kohls, whose multiple roles in agriculture include serving as executive director of the Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association.

The first part of the series, published in the July 30 issue of Agweek, examined how the ethnicity and birthplace of area agriculturalists are diversifying.

The third and final installment, featuring a Minnesota woman who's operating the family farm after the death of her husband, will be published Aug. 13.


One woman, several ag hats


HUTCHINSON, Minn. - Ashley Kohls smiles when asked how she would have fit into area agriculture a few decades ago, when women generally were confined to traditional roles on their family farming operations.

"Well, I know I'm just not built be a stay-at-home mom," she says.

Kohls, a mother of two children, doesn't need to be one. She has the drive - and expanded career opportunities available in modern agriculture - to fill several roles:

โ€ข She's executive director of the Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association, a part-time position she began in 2014 that allowed her to take 'the trip of a lifetime" to China and Japan earlier this year.

โ€ข She's Beef Quality Assurance coordinator in Minnesota. The national program provides guidelines for beef cattle production.

โ€ข She and husband, Craig, run their own cattle operation near Hutchinson, Minn., Craig's home town.

Her previous professional experience includes working at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Lab and serving as quality assurance manager at First District Association, an independent dairy cooperative based in Litchfield, Minn.


Ashley and Craig Kohls operate Kohls Land and Cattle near Hutchinson, Minn.

Agweek met with Ashley and Craig this summer on their farm near Hutchinson, a town of about 14,000 roughly 55 miles from the Twin Cities. They operate a feedlot, have a small registered Angus herd and calve out short-term cows, aged animals having their last calves. Craig also is a crop farmer, working with his father and uncle.

Ashley grew up in northwest Iowa. She lived on a farm before moving to town as a child, but in high school worked on a dairy farm in the area. She went to South Dakota State University where "I met this guy (she points to Craig) and landed here."

When Craig was a boy, his family raised corn and soybeans (the dominant crops in his area) and some cattle. He lived on a farmstead four miles from where he and Ashley live now with their children. Avery is 9, Bennett is 5. Craig began renting their place when he was a sophomore in high school, and bought it in 2003.

He also attended South Dakota State University. He and Ashley, both 33, married between her junior and senior years in college. Since coming to Hutchinson to farm together, they've expanded their business several times, always looking for ways to add value to it.

Kohls Land and Cattle operates near Hutchinson, Minn.

Working off the farm was important to Ashley, both for professional satisfaction and the additional income it brought. Agricultural economists stress the importance of off-farm income, and farm families cite the value of health insurance that an off-farm job sometimes provides.

Her first job, at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, was satisfying - though the hour-long, one-way commute was not. "I loved the job. It was a chance to put my (college) degree to use. If it was closer (to Hutchinson), I'd still be there," she says.

The Beef Quality Assurance's Minnesota office is in the Twin Cities area. In her role with the cattlemen's association, "I'm wherever they need me. I home-office a lot." she says. "When I'm not able to be here, Craig can be here, so it works out really well for my family."


The amount of time spent away from home "depends on the season. December through March (a period sometimes known as winter meeting season) gets crazy," she says.

One recent highlight was an educational trip, sponsored by the U.S. Meat Export Federation, in which Kohls and others spent four days in Japan and four days in China.

"The potential is just incredible," especially in China. "Beijing (alone) has 21 million people. Getting each of them to eat just one more pound of beef (annually) would be huge," Kohls says.

Though cattle are enjoyable personally and professionally, "owning cattle and working in the cattle industry - well, there can be heartache and stress. Sometimes it's good to get away a little bit. But it's hard to get away," which friends who don't work in agriculture may not realize.

The Kohls' breaks are "pretty typical Minnesota," including camping locally, Ashley Kohls says.




Ashley Kohls and her daughter, Avery, 9. (Submitted photo)
Ashley Kohls and her daughter, Avery, 9.

Kohls, asked if she's ever experienced resentment or resistance because of her gender, says, "It's not prevalent as it once was. But I've felt it, on the policy side (of the cattle industry). It can be intimidating walking into a room of men. There can be a little bit of insecurity of being a woman in a man's worlds. I try not to (feel insecure), but it's hard not to."

She says she and other women in non-traditional ag roles don't want special treatment.

"We don't want to be recognized for being women. We want to be recognized for being good at what we do," she says.

Kohls says she's been helped greatly by Jodie Anderson, executive director of the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association, and Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association. Both are "great at what they do and are willing to go out of their way to help others succeed," Kohls says.

Which raises this question: Three women in the top staff positions at cattle producers' groups in Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota - and all three organization have "men" in their names. Should that change?

Kohls says, "I've had that conversation (about whether the Minnesota group's name is still appropriate). In my mind, it's just what you are. It's just a standard term to describe what you do. But if you talk to different women, you get different answers."

Whatever happens with the name, agriculture and farm families have evolved with the times and will continue to do so, Kohls says.

"Society has changed. Farm families are changing, too. Our family is just part of that," she says.

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