Women looking to turn the tables on stereotypes in ag industry

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Panelists Allie Holub, Katie Fitzgerald, Miranda Nelson and Sarah Kolk discuss being women in ag at 2021 Farm Technology Days in Eau Claire, Wis.

Although farming has historically been seen as a "man's job," many women in the ag industry are looking to turn the tables on that stereotype.

A discussion panel, moderated by Alice in Dairyland Julia Nunes, explored women's issues in the industry at Farm Technology Days on Tuesday, July 20. Guests included Allie Holub, whose family owns Riverview Dairy; Katie Fitzgerald, greenhouse operations coordinator for Superior Fresh; Miranda Nelson, co-owner of Nellie's Holsteins; and Sarah Kolk, research scientist for Silver Spring Foods (subsidiary of Huntsinger Farms).

For many of the panelists, agriculture was something they grew up doing and just couldn't leave it – so they stayed in it for their career. Fitzgerald remarked that her dad, a fourth-generation dairy farmer, actually told her not to go into dairy farming, but she just couldn't imagine doing anything else.

"My dad told me not to. He said that he had worked for 35 years every day to give me a choice. I wasn't supposed to choose what he had to do for 35 years," Fitzgerald said. "And for me, I just couldn't find any other career that allowed me to impact my environment, that allowed me to feed my community, that allowed me to see and live my values every single day."

As the only woman working at her previous agriculture sales job, Nelson said women bring an important outsider perspective to the table, making it very important for women to be involved in decision-making and strategy. She added that many men in the industry would ask for her husband when she was just as capable of handling a business conversation herself.

MORE: Farm Technology Days is back!

However, Kolk added that during her time in the agriculture industry (being the only panelist not to grow up into the business) she hasn't experienced any gender bias.

"I haven't experienced any gender bias in this field yet, and I think that's amazing," Kolk said. "Everyone's just really mutually respectful. And you have to be an innovator, you have to be solutions-based to thrive in this market at all."

Farmers should be creative and stubborn, Fitzgerald said, especially the younger generations now entering the ag workforce. She said this is the generation that will be solving problems for the environment unlike any other generation before them, requiring new levels of creativity and ambition.

Holub said the best farmer is patient, kind and flexible. She explained that if you're taking care of the earth and its resources, you should start with kindness. Often in farming things don't go the way you intended them to because nature is not in your control, she said, so the ability to adapt is paramount.

"Farming can be expensive and time consuming, and everything in your climate is always changing," Holub said. "But if you start with kindness if you're in agriculture in any way, shape, or form and you want to take care of something, (whether) it's plants, it's water, it's trees, it's cows, it's honeybees ... you have to be very kind."

72nd Alice in Dairyland Julia Nunes hosts women in ag panel at 2021 Farm Technology Days in Eau Claire, Wis.

On the other hand, Kolk said there's more to agriculture than just being a farmer, like her job of being a food scientist. She said there's lots of opportunities in the industry for any type of person, from finance to marketing, as long as you look for them. Nelson added that with one out of eight people in Wisconsin working for the ag industry in some way, it's easy to become involved in the ag community with many organizations and networking opportunities out there.

On the technology front, Holub helped her fiancé create their own custom business in manure injection, she said. Instead of hauling manure and dumping it right on top of the crops, they run hoses throughout the fields where manure gets injected six inches into the ground. The process improves nutrient retention, prevents manure runoff into waterways and reduces odor.

"This is beneficial in many ways. You get better nutrient retention going directly into the ground versus spreading on top. It's also environmentally safe," Holub said. "It's modern technology ... we are one of the first ones in our area to do it, so we're getting a lot of farmers, they've never heard of it or they have heard of it, but they haven't been able to try it."

There's also a growing number of management opportunities for women in ag, some of which are office jobs for those who don't want to get their hands too dirty, Nelson said. She added that human resources and employee management are becoming an especially big part of farms as they grow bigger and bigger over the years.

"Management in the agricultural community doesn't just mean hands-on in the dirt. There are plenty of opportunities for HR," Nelson said. "As operations get bigger, those opportunities for those individuals to manage the employees and different things. ... With time, there will be a bigger need for an HR manager."

Fitzgerald said it's important for women, especially young women, to remind themselves that they belong in management spaces even when others shut them out, intentionally or unintentionally.

You're constantly telling them, why wasn't I in that meeting? And why wasn't I involved with this decision? Why are you putting me in these positions if you don't trust my opinion?" Fitzgerald said. "Sometimes they don't know any better and it's second nature – a lot of the times it's unintentional. But I think it's (important) having those people in your life that are reminding you that you deserve that position that you deserve the responsibilities that you have.