Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of meeting with a dedicated group of women farmers and ranchers who are actively taking on leadership roles in farm organizations, cooperatives, and in their communities. They had gathered in the sunshine state for the National Farmers Union Women’s Conference to discuss opportunities and challenges on their own operations, what they believe the future holds for agriculture, and the role of women in that future.
Women face a unique set of challenges. They must find ways to balance the demands of family, community and the responsibilities to their businesses – all while being strong leaders within and for their communities.
At the conference, I had the privilege of speaking with Jane Alexander, a pioneer for women in leadership roles. Jane began as a state lawmaker in the 1960s and went on to become the first female deputy secretary of agriculture in the United States, serving in the state of Pennsylvania. She has been an inspiration for so many women – not just in agriculture. She encouraged women at the meeting to follow their dreams and gave guidance on overcoming obstacles.
I was inspired by the diversity of the women I met at the conference. There was a South Dakota rancher who had gone through the challenges of the early winter storm last year. A young woman and her mother who were attending the conference together. This remarkable girl is home-schooled on her family’s farm and helps with all aspects of running and caring for her family’s farm – in addition to running her own salves and balms company. There was an Iowan transitioning her farm – a CSA farmer from New Hampshire – and so many more working tirelessly to manage their businesses and make sure their needs are represented as decisions are made that affect their lives and livelihoods. These excellent women are serving on boards, starting committees and bringing their experience and expertise to the agriculture policy table.
Talking with these women made it clear to me: the time is now to be planning and building the kind of future we want to have in agriculture. Farming and ranching is full of new, diverse thinkers who have experience, passion, and can contribute their expertise to the future. But those of us in agriculture have to be ready to share tools for leadership with this new crop of leaders– and to support them as they work towards success.
As Deputy Secretary, I want to meet this challenge head on. We have an obligation to our future and those who will inherit our farms and ranches to build a tomorrow that works. Think about your own families and neighbors – what will they need and want twenty years from now? How will that affect what we do today?
The impressive women in Florida had a vision for that future. The diversity of people that I have met as I have traveled across the country have a vision. Let’s build upon the successes of agriculture by opening the doors wide to these new thinkers. The future of American farming and ranching will be a bright one – everyone who loves the land and wants to make a living on it should have a spot at the table to decide how that happens.