Ag door ‘wide open’ for women

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Women have become an increasingly important force in Mississippi agriculture, involved with husbands and family members in business, risk management, and other key farming decisions, says Amy Tuck, special assistant to Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum and Mississippi lieutenant governor 2000-2008.

“Given the economic challenges our state faces today, the continued success of agriculture is vital to Mississippi’s future, and women will play an increasingly important role,” she said at the annual conference of Mississippi Women in Agriculture.

Alan Barefield, associate director, Southern Development Center and Extension economics professor at Mississippi State University, says 29 percent of all farm operators in the state are women, and in 15 percent of the operations they are the primary decision-makers.

“The last Census of Agriculture showed 5,241 women principal operators in 2001 and 6,130 in 2007, so the number of women playing a key role in the state’s agriculture is increasing.

“Land owned by women operators increased 31 percent in that period, and the value of farm products sold by them increased from $275 million in 2002 to $335 million in 2007.

“Increases were recorded for all types of operations by women, including row crops, animal agriculture, horticulture, fruits/tree nuts, and vegetables/melons. More women are becoming involved in high value niche crops.”

Melissa Mixon, Mississippi State University vice president for agriculture, forestry, and veterinary medicine, says veterinarians are playing “an extremely important role” in the U.S. these days because of increasing concerns about animal health issues.

“Seventy-five percent to 80 percent of our veterinary students are now women — quite a turnabout in a profession that had always been male-dominated.”

MSU has one of only 28 veterinary schools in the nation, and there are “serious shortages in all areas of veterinary public practice because the educational capacity in veterinary medical education has not changed in 20 years,” Mixon says. “Not enough veterinary students are training to work with beef cattle, swine, poultry, sheep, and larger animals.

“Rural areas are not attracting the veterinarians they need or filling vacant veterinary positions quickly enough.

Food industry positions are hard to fill. Many veterinarians in government positions will reach retirement age over the next five to 10 years, and this is occurring at the same time that more people with veterinary training are needed in state and federal agencies to protect the livestock industry from new diseases and to help insure a safe food supply.”

Many careers possibilities are open to women in agriculture, Mixon notes. “Our College of Agriculture and Life Sciences offers many agriculture-related specialties, with excellent opportunities for women.

“The door is wide open; the opportunities are many. Extension has many resources available — at the local and state level, through USDA, and through a network of experts around the country — to assist women in becoming involved in all aspects of agriculture.

“We encourage them to be knowledgeable about issues affecting their livelihood, to become involved in promoting those issues, and to encourage others in their community to join them.”

Latrice Hill, USDA Farm Service Agency public relations/outreach specialist for Mississippi and a member of the advisory committee for beginning farmers and ranchers, says the stereotype of the farm woman as a stern, unsmiling domestic, as portrayed in the 1930s American Gothic painting, is long outdated.

“Women play a vital role in today’s agriculture, working side-by-side with their husbands and other family members, using their knowledge and skills to make a vital contribution to their farm’s success. Many of them are operators of their own farms.”

Hill says there is an upward trend for women farm operators. “Nationally, the number of women who are principal farm operators increased from 9 percent in 1997 to 27 percent in 2002.’

Many of the farms have been inherited, she notes, but rather than selling or hiring managers, many of the women have chosen to operate the farms themselves.

But, many of them have smaller operations involving livestock or high value crops that carry more risk.

As women become increasingly involved in farming, she says, “It is important that they hone their management skills, become better marketers, and develop contingency plans.”

And Hill says, “it is essential” that women have the same access as men to capital, information, and other resources. Assistance in those areas is available through the FSA, Extension, and other agencies, she notes.

“Women are the unsung heroes in America’s rural communities,” Hill says. “When a woman marries a farmer, she marries that lifestyle, and learns to balance work, family, crops, animals, church, and community activities.”

Beyond their on-farm involvement, she says, there are many other opportunities for women in ag-related fields, in both the private and public sectors.

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