Casey Bradley had worked in agriculture for more than a decade when she was chosen to serve on a U.S. Department of Agriculture committee in 2015. But despite her expertise, she was tapped because she checked a box.
“That was so hurtful,” Bradley, 42, said. “To hear that from somebody I respected as a professor, that couldn't respect me enough to say, ‘We put you on there because your expertise is so invaluable.’ But more so ‘We put you on there to check the box.’” (The USDA did not return a request for comment on her hiring.)
Interviews with a dozen women navigating the male-dominated agricultural industry showed they have experienced different treatment than their male peers. The women, from their mid-20s to their late 60s, were told to wait to start their families, were often referred to as “girl,” were passed over for promotions and worked with farm equipment not made for them.
“I noticed the respect, sometimes, for women in ag is just not there,” said Whitney Rook, a 27-year-old animal science program technician. “We’ve always been told it’s a man’s job.”
Even so, the women interviewed expressed gratitude to the industry’s men, who served as bosses, clients and counterparts.
“For every bad thing that’s happened,” Bradley said, “10 to 20 good things.”
The USDA has historically undercounted women in agriculture. In 2017, the latest Census of Agriculture — a comprehensive dataset that’s released every five years — showed women represented 36% of all farm producers.
Despite the overall percentage of women producers being the minority, the census reported that 56% of farms have at least one female producer, classifying the farm as “female operated,” a USDA spokesperson said.
This was a 12% increase from 2012, in part due to more detailed data collection up to four producers per farm.
While the ag census highlights women producers directly on the farm, it lacks inclusivity of the women in agriculture on the industry side – those who formulate chemicals for products or monitor animal nutrition, for example.
The Midwest, especially Illinois, has the poorest representation of farming women by several metrics, according to the 2017 ag census.
Illinois is tied with the lowest percentage of women farmers (29%) and the lowest percentage of women principal producers (21%). And Illinois is only behind Utah in the lowest percentage of women who own farmland in the state.
One of Illinois’ female farmers, Sorento’s Susan Wall, 65, said she has always had trouble being respected by the industry’s men. Wall was often dismissed by visitors to her family farm and asked if the boss — meaning her husband — was home.
“I’ve done this all my life,” she said. “I consider myself not just a farm wife, but a farmer. I do anything and everything on the farm.”
‘A female has her place’ mindset
Traditionally, women have been expected to take on domestic responsibilities rather than labor-intensive farm work. This mindset, passed down through generations, has created doubt and hesitancy, the women said, even if they perform both duties.
Aside from Wall’s choice of never driving the big tractors in the field (she decided she needed more time with her growing kids than in the field), she was equally the boss on her farm.
She paid the bills, tracked the records and raked and baled hay. She also raised three children, all of whom pursued roles in agriculture themselves, and cooked for everybody.
The irritation extends beyond the fields and into the corporate world, where women struggle to be promoted.
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Kelby Riley, 28, from Abernathy, Texas, works with farmers every day scouting fields and compiling spray records as an AgriEdge specialist for the chemical company, Syngenta. As someone thinking about starting her family soon, Riley’s path to promotion has barriers, she said.
When considering a recent promotion, a male counterpart told Riley that it is hard for a woman to be respected in the industry when she has a child; it will lead to lost customers and sales because of her absence. Ultimately, it will be difficult to be as successful when balancing a family, he told her.
“It makes the women in the industry have to work that much harder to prove that we can raise a family and have our personal life, as well as kick ass in our professional lives,” Riley said.
Sometimes her male clients get uncomfortable being alone with Riley in a field, causing a one-or two-day delay so a male coworker can join her. She always has to ride on her own four wheeler to scout fields and is introduced as the “technology girl,” almost as if she doesn’t have a name, she said.
Riley’s manager, Reagan DeSpain, said he supports the women on his team to reach their goals.
It’s “extremely critical” to have women in leadership positions, he said. “That diversity is needed big time within the ag industry.”
Jackie Nix, 52, from Alabama, worked from 2001 to 2018 without a promotion at an animal nutrition company. She watched as her male equals were hand-picked for new supervisor roles, while her annual promotion requests were ignored. Nix said that, overall, few people moved up in the company, but those who did were men.
In meetings, Nix was automatically assigned as the notetaker and was expected to make the lunch arrangements, she said. During performance reviews, Nix displayed the same behavior that was encouraged in men, but hers was seen as “too brusque,” very direct and not tactful, she said.
While women in agriculture experience many challenges from other individuals, there are also industry-specific roadblocks, such as funding opportunities and equipment size. The USDA’s Farm Service Agency classifies women as socially disadvantaged, which in turn, is supposed to remove barriers for funding.
For the last four years, Elizabeth Riffle, 33, has applied for USDA loans without success, making her feel like an annoyance to her regional office, she said.
Without a farm inheritance, Riffle quickly learned that starting her West Virginia bison operation from the ground up would be expensive. However, she thought there would be all types of funding for her female and veteran-owned farm. The only funding Riffle has received was related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead of grants, Riffle received hundreds of pages of information through email, most of which did not apply to her and left her feeling “sidelined, and that what I was doing was in no way important,” she said.
"I have not been able to get a hold of anyone who will take the time to really discuss what my options are,” she added.
Aside from funding opportunities, women also have to work with equipment that was designed for much taller, stronger individuals — men.
Arkansas cattle rancher Mandy Villines, 25, has to strap pillows to the seat of her tractor to be able to drive it. When putting T-posts into the ground for fences, the metal tool she uses is both too heavy and too tall. Although Villines can complete her tasks with innovation, these small feats would not exist if equipment was made with consideration to women.
When asked about accommodations to women, a John Deere spokesperson said the company is committed to customer fit and ease of use, and real people are invited to operate the equipment to validate the company’s design.
“Those people are both men and women and represent various body sizes and shapes, ages and physical abilities to ensure confidence in the product design,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.
Even when it comes to networking, the opportunities such as golfing, fishing and hunting are catered toward the men in the industry, said Bradley, the animal nutritionist. This leaves women with few enjoyable options where they can try to expand their professional horizons, she said.
The importance of being counted
Without true representation in the ag census, young women may look at the industry and feel discouraged about their ability to climb the ladder to a decision-making position, some of the women said.
Arkansas’ Villines recognized that women in agriculture have a versatile role: It includes anything from tagging and vaccinating cattle to caring for the house and kids. In some cases, women may not believe they’re involved in agriculture if they don’t have their boots on the ground, she said.
“At the end of the day, whether we are cooking you dinner and making sure the house is clean or we’re out there helping you tag cows, we are a huge backbone in this industry,” Villines said.
She’s the secretary for the Madison County Cattlemen’s Association, the local affiliate of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. As far as she knows, she is the first woman to hold any position in the local organization.
North Dakota farmer Carie Moore, 43, said she believes the census numbers are very misleading and should be higher. Nevertheless, she feels proud to be a part of the minority: She is considered a principal producer, meaning she makes the day-to-day decisions, on her family’s farm in Rock Lake.
Moore is also the vice president of communications for American Agri-Women, the nation’s largest coalition of farm, ranch and agribusiness women. Moore said she has not experienced being treated differently for being a woman in the industry.
Comparatively, Minnesota farmer Rachel Gray, 47, has not felt discriminated against in her community but believes women are not counted appropriately.
“USDA and the census has had a problem (not being progressive) for a long time,” she said.
Gray did not fully recognize the importance of women being counted in agriculture until she was asked to present at the Smithsonian’s “Ask A Farmer: Women in Agriculture” event in 2016, she said.
Prior to the event, Gray’s mother told her that, because she was not the principal producer of their farm, she couldn’t sign any papers. That meant she wasn’t counted in the census as a farmer.
That opened Gray’s eyes to the issue.
Nix from Alabama has never had the ag census on her radar, she said.
“In this country, we think of agriculture as only the people who are working the land or interacting with the livestock directly,” she said. “We forget about all of these related, ag-adjacent technological positions that are absolutely necessary.”
Lead photo: Elizabeth Riffle poses as she gets ready for a farm tour and cooking demo event, June 2021. Photo provided.