Women in ag industry speak on leadership and community involvement

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer

As the male-dominated ag industry continues to take on more women in leadership roles, shedding traditional gender stereotypes, some of those women say they're excited for what the future holds.

Three female leaders in Wisconsin's ag community – Amy Penterman, Heidi Fischer and Jamie Witcpalek – made guest appearances on the Dairy Stream podcast, hosted by Mike Austin and produced by the Dairy Business Association and Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative.

Penterman is the recently-elected and first female president of the Dairy Business Association; she is a mother and dairy farmer at Dutch Dairy in Thorp. Fischer owns Fischer-Clark Dairy Farm with her husband in Hatley, and is also a mother and was the first female member of the board for Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative. And Witcpalek, also a mother, co-owns Pagel's Ponderosa Dairy, is chairwoman of its parent company and sits on the Edge board as well.

Amy Penterman

While they say it has not been easy to scale the ranks as a woman in the dairy industry, all three said they look forward to even more opportunities for women to join them in leadership roles and community involvement. Fischer said having women in leadership positions helps bring another perspective to the table that can help find alternative solutions to problems. Penterman said it's important to stay involved for many reasons.

"It gives me an opportunity to connect with our consumers and to be a resource (for people who) might not understand what we do on the farm, and it's a great opportunity to promote the great products that we produce," Penterman said.

Tackling challenges

For both Penterman and Fischer, they were challenged by entering the dairy industry without having any family background in the specialty. Penterman, who grew up on a beef farm, said it's important for her to keep a positive attitude and gain support from other women.

For Fischer, she said many people doubted her commitment to dairy, but she was able to overcome a steep learning curve.

"There was some doubt by a lot of people about how seriously I'd take the role or how committed would I be with the follow-through," Fischer said. "I like a good challenge, and my learning curve was obviously very steep and very fast, so it allowed me to challenge myself on a daily basis and that really kept me intrigued and engaged."

Heidi Fischer

Witcpalek said her biggest challenge was moving forward after her father and husband died in a small plane crash in 2018. She had worked with her father, dairy farmer John Pagel, for nearly fifteen years before he died, Progressive Dairy reported. Her husband Steve Witcpalek also became a close associate in the family business.

Despite such a hill to climb, Witcpalek has made a name for herself as a leader of the family dairy alongside her siblings. She's currently chairwoman of Pagel Family Businesses, the parent company of Pagel's Ponderosa Dairy, and is also a board member of Edge.

"I started working out of the living room with my dad and stepmom in the house. ... Then over 16 years, my role has grown into this full time role. I was Dad's right-hand woman," Witcpalek said. "I went from the living room office to the corner office and ... it amazes me to know where we were and how far we've come."

Penterman said she feels accomplished being the first female president of DBA, adding that she felt "honored to be entrusted with the role." Witcpalek also said she was proud of how far her family business had come in the 16 years she'd been involved in its growth and expansion.

Fischer said it made her proud to be Edge's first female board member because she believes its other members are "exceptional" people who push her out of her comfort zone and give her confidence.

Stay involved

The women also said that it's important to stay involved in the different parts of your community, whether ag or not, because of an obligation to your community. Penterman said community engagement makes the community stronger, noting her own saying "many hands make light work," emphasizing the need for everyone to pitch in.

Fischer noted that leaders should especially be involved in their communities because people will come to them for guidance, advice and inspiration.

Jamie Witcpalek

"I think people naturally gravitate to us to hear what our opinion, our viewpoint or perspective is on the situation and then how we can weigh in and kind of help improve the situation," Fischer said.

"To me, we're all in this together, so you have to give back and create a place for you and your family to live," Witcpalek said.

When it comes to being a mother, just about everyone knows how much work that can be – and when you're a farm mom, that means your days are packed. Penterman, Fischer and Witcpalek all agreed that the support team starts at home with parents and children working together.

It's important to stay balanced and keep your priorities on target, Fischer said. Penterman added that your children should understand what you're doing to help them live good lives. Remember that you can say no and there's no shame in asking for help from friends or family, she added.

Witcpalek recommended using calendars and planners to parse out the day's tasks. She said she also hired a housekeeper and recommended doing it if you are able to and don't have the time to clean your home properly.

Communication important

Communication is also an important component of effective leadership, they said. Witcpalek said she's learned to listen better to people who need to be heard, rather than just trying to fix problems that aren't easily resolved. Fischer also remarked that "not everything requires a response," meaning it's OK to take time to think about what you want to say rather than saying the wrong thing right away.

Penterman said if you can work through solutions with your people, you should.

"Being open and honest and sincere (is important). People can see through you if you're fake, and just knowing that you care about what they have to say goes a long way," Penterman said. "They know you may not be able to solve a problem, but how can we figure out solutions to a problem? Just ... working through it just means the world to people."

Moving forward to the future, Fischer said women's humility, detail orientation and self-awareness will prove to be big assets in their leadership abilities. Despite being in a male-dominated industry, Witcpalek said the industry is changing as more women join the ag workforce and climb their way up the ladder. 

"Whenever you feel overwhelmed, remember who you are, and remember whose daughter you are," Witcpalek said. "I really think about that, like, 'Who am I, and whose daughter am I?' That's right. Straighten your crown, be strong. You got this, and move forward, don't be intimidated."