The Grass Ceiling for Women in Agriculture


Women have made great strides in recent years in gaining ownership and operating farm businesses.  Today, women make up 31% of all farmers and are principal operators on 13% of U.S. farms, reports USDA. Women own 30% of the farmland across America.

Texas has the most female principle operators, according to the latest 2012 Census data (see map). Arizona has the highest proportion of farmers, ranging from chili pepper growers to alfalfa producers. In Iowa, one out of every four acres of farmland is owned by a woman.

Yet women are bumping up against a “grass” ceiling. Many women can’t break into ownership positions on large commercial farms because of lack of opportunities or cultural disperity on large farms. Of women-operating farms in the U.S., 98% have less than $250,000 in sales.

Female operators by sales class

Not only are women principal operators running farms with smaller sales, these farms are very specialized:

  • Nearly half of female farmers raise livestock;
  • Women who own poultry, specialty crops, grains or dairy operations generate 72% of sales on all women’s farms; and
  • Very few are involved in traditional large commodity farming.Many of the challenges women face as they try to break through the grass ceiling are the same challenges as their male counterparts: securing financial assistance — particularly in a low commodity price cycle — and access to land. Currently, the business of many beginning farm women are not surviving the first five years. Farming with family, especially women who have married into a farm business, can create additional pressures. It can be difficult to make tough decisions about the farm during the day and come together again for a family dinner at the farm homestead that evening.

What can we do to support and promote women in agriculture?

  • Develop support networks offering women the opportunity to work together, share concerns and strengthen their farm-family role. A larger knowledge base and stronger interpersonal relationship skills can increase success.
  • Push leadership on the farm. Women in leadership positions have a multiplier effect: Repeated exposure to female elected officials improves perceptions of female leaders and leads to future electoral gains for women. Look for local or national leadership seminars or online training to boost skills.
  • Encourage women to speak up. Many women working in farming operations are afraid to share new ideas; they hang back if they think that they have nothing new to say or that their ideas fall short of profound.
  • Empower women on the farm. More women should be given the chance to market grain, learn new technologies and run equipment. Today it takes brains to run a farm, not brawn!

Understand Your Emotional Currency

heart money'

How many workshops have you sat through that were designed to teach women about money and farm financials? Invariably, the focus is on financial transactions, numbers and spreadsheets – not on understanding your relationship with money.

Women often avoid the transactional side of finances UNTIL they can accept their emotional connection with money. Research reveals women and men do not think, talk or handle money the same way. For example, since women (on average) earn less money during their lives, they tend to see money as a pool that can run dry. Men tend to see money as a faucet they can turn off or on. Research shows men are better at taking risks with money. However, women are better at investing because they kick the tires, do homework, make their decisions and stay consistent.

I have interviewed hundreds of commodity brokers in my former career as an agricultural journalist, and hands down the brokers say the wife or woman partner on a farm does a better job of marketing the crop long term. Men tend to focus on moving in and out of commodity trades – women are more patient.

By discovering what drives your financial habits and choices, you can experience power with money. Figure out how emotions play into your financial decisions. Use this knowledge to guard against your weaknesses or play up your strengths. For example, did you grow up on a farm, packing your lunch every school day because your parents thought it best to feed you from their own pantry than pay for school food? How does this impact your decisions to eat out on a weekly/daily basis? Does it color your concept of consumer prices, food choices?

Here are two easy tips to begin understanding your relationship with money:

  1. What is your money FOR? What kind of future or legacy do you wish to shape? In your opinion, is your money used for the basics of living life or to help create a life worth living?
  2. What does financial security mean to you? Most women are taught that money equals financial security and a golden-paved road to happiness. But money can be immobilizing when you can’t decide how much money is enough. Money can bring guilt or even shame. Work with a Certified Financial Planner who is willing to talk through YOUR emotional and financial goals to security.

The reality is that life takes money. If you learn your emotional connection to finances,  you will gain more control over your life choices.

My Favorite Biz Books Right Now

I’m a reader. I’m a fast reader. Maybe I’m more of a skimmer. When I have a problem, whether in my business life or personal life, I go to my bookshelf and look for an author wiser, smarter, older or more interesting than me to give me additional guidance.

This is how I started my collection of business books. They range from the classics, such as Good to Great by Jim Collins and the Art of War by Sun Tzu to some very technical books like Farm Management Principles and Strategies by Kent Olson, a professor at the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota.

I have a great collection of books dedicated to women in business, which are always fun to read, given their unique perspective.

Looking for something new to guide you in 2016? Here’s what I’m reading right now:


  1. Mistakes I Made at Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What they Got Out of Getting It Wrong – by Jessica Bacal. Twenty-five successful women share their toughest on-the-job moments. These innovators across various fields reveal that they’re more thoughtful, purposeful and assertive leaders because they learned from their mistakes…not because they didn’t make any.
  2. The Better People Leader – by Charles A. Coonradt. This book explores the crucial role leaders have in creating environments that foster success and teaches the principles that unlock keys to employee involvement, engagement and energy.
  3. New Rules @ Work: 79 Etiquette Tips, Tools and Techniques to Get Ahead and Stay Ahead – by Barbara Pachter. Are you breaking into a new job? Moving up at work? Trying to make a good professional impression? This essential guide outlines every mistake you shouldn’t make paired with real-life anecdotes to understand modern business etiquette.
  4. Rich Bitch: A Simple 12-Step Plan for Getting Your Financial Life Together…Finally – by Nicole Lapin. Money expert and financial journalist Nicole Lapin lays out a 12-step plan that rethinks every bit of financial wisdom you’ve ever heard and puts her own, fresh, modern and sassy spin on it.
  5. Unique Ability: Creating the Life You Want – by Dan Sullivan. Most of us are raised to fit in, taught we have to adapt ourselves to be useful and succeed. But your greatest strength lies in who you are already. This book helps define your own Unique Ability to create the life you want at work and at home.



5 New Year’s Resolutions for Women in Agriculture

If you don’t set goals, you don’t have a plan to move forward, right? Hence the tradition of New Year’s Resolutions. The reason these resolutions often fail is because we set unrealistic goals. As women entrepreneurs, farmers and agribusiness professionals, we will always try and conquer the unconquerable!

Instead, let’s set goals we can reach if we stretch ourselves: goals that make us smarter, stronger or less stressed; goals that make us better both professionally and personally.

Here are 5 New Year’s Resolutions that every women in agriculture should consider for 2016:

  1. Become a better leader. One of the top challenges I hear often from women who farm or manage farm operations is a lack of leadership skills. For those of you who grew up in your family farm business, you may be faced with managing an employee who once saw you in diapers or as a kid running around in the hay fields! As a woman, sometimes the challenge of delegating tasks comes with additional issues related to age, sexism or even knowledge. Make a goal to shore up your leadership skills: attend a conference, read a leadership book (see my blog on best business books) or make a short list of things you can do to improve morale in the office.
  2. Tell your story. One area women in business excel in is communication. So why don’t we tell our business story more often? Is it that we haven’t practiced? Are we shy? Are we embarrassed? More than ever, agriculture needs passionate women telling consumers about the quality of their food and why we work in this field. The ag industry is in desperate need of “foot soldiers” who can talk about modern food production in positive ways. Make it a goal this year to talk to three new people each month about agriculture, about what you do as a woman farmer or women in agribusiness.
  3. Spend less time in the office. Most of the business women I know are overachievers. We work 60 hours a week and wear that number like a badge of honor. Yet spending every waking minute on work just means we are going to burn out faster. It also means we become more tired easily and can lose sight each day of why we are in this business of agriculture. We can become resentful. We lose our playfulness and our joy. If you work in a home office like I do, it’s all too easy to sneak back into that office at night and finish “one more task”. Let’s make a goal to shut the door at the end of good day’s work and spend more time on ourselves, family and friends.
  4. Hire the right people. Far too often we as women find ourselves doing the jobs of three employees, and once we decide to hire help, we hire the first breathing person we can find. It’s ironic that women tend to be more people-oriented, but we are often terrible at hiring! Hiring isn’t easy, but the right people in your business are worth the wait. As Jim Collins says in his famous book Good to Great: “Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats”. The bus is your business. The right people will not only bring out the best in your future business, but also your current team. Note: this also goes for your personal life. The happiest, most productive business women I know also have a team of employees or contractors to help them manage their home (think cleaning and shopping). But hold out for the right people!
  5. Stay up on current business events. I am shocked by how many women in agriculture don’t read the daily news. How can you run a business without knowing what is happening in the world? Agriculture is keenly affected by consumer trends, both good and bad, and by world markets. I make myself read the Wall Street Journal every day – a habit I have kept up since I left journalism school in 1995. Even if I don’t have time to read a full story, I skim the headlines. If an agriculture story catches my eye, I rip out that page and put it into a folder for later “deep reading”. Then I pull out that folder every Friday afternoon. Read so that you have the insight to make informed decisions in 2016.

Prepare For a Board Position

boardOver the course of my career, I have both said YES to board positions and NO. I have served on nonprofits and the boards of for-profit national businesses. In agriculture and in rural communities, there is no shortage of volunteer opportunities! Especially when the position is non-paying!

One thing I have learned is there must be a weighted YES to why you join a board. In other words, if you are going to take the time to participate as a member of the board of a business or non-profit, the pros have to outweigh the cons.

Becoming a member of a nonprofit organization’s board can be a meaningful way to explore how your experience and expertise can be applied in the nonprofit sector at the governance level. It also can be a rewarding, high impact way that for-profit business women can do community service while learning new skills to enhance your own careers.

Keep in mind that when you join a board, you are agreeing to serve the best interests of that organization. This is why it’s important that you only agree to join a board if your moral and ethical compass says YES.

With serving the best interests of an organization in mind, it’s important to choose social causes you are most passionate about. Part of your job as a board member is to be the “face” of that organization – if you can’t feel passionate about the organization, your face will tell the tale.

Important Questions to Ask. To explore your passion for a particular cause, it can help to walk through a series of questions. Jeri Eckhart-Queenan, a partner with the Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit advisor to nonprofits and philanthropy, offers the following questions as guides:

  • Is the work of the organization interesting to me?
  • Could I imagine making the organization one of my leading philanthropies, in terms of the time, energy, and other personal resources I’m willing to devote to it?
  • How willing would I be to introduce others to the work of the organization?

After you’ve determined those causes you’re truly passionate about, you can begin to evaluate specific opportunities. Only entertain board opportunities if your goals are the same as those of the organization. Also, make sure your skills are what the organization truly needs and that your expertize can advance its mission – there is nothing worse than serving on a board just because they need to fill another seat.

Finally, consider the time commitment required to fulfill both your legal and fiduciary responsibilities as a board member. This commitment could require fundraising activities. Make sure to ask questions ahead of time and fully vet the opportunity.

It is ok to say NO. I recently turned down a board position for a start-up nonprofit organization that I supported in theory, but felt wasn’t quite fully baked and ready to launch. Instead, I offered my support and free advice as the organization advanced toward their goal.

Time is precious; choose wisely where you spend your time.

Fixing the Leaky Bucket

When it comes to women in business, we have “a leaky bucket”… women are prematurely plateauing their careers and then choosing to leave the business world all together.

leaky bucket

Lack of support, mentor relationships and equal salaries are all cited as reasons women may choose to leave the workplace all together once they reach a certain level. As a result, more companies are developing women networking groups to provide community and support at the management level.

Dow AgroSciences, for example, started in 2011 its Women’s Innovation Network. This group engages women leaders in the company to actively support and develop future women leaders. Volunteers commit to a 1-year program that includes monthly and bi-monthly one on one meetings with coaches, and twice yearly meetings on a leadership topic.

As a result, Dow AgroSciences was named Company of the Year for Women in Agribusiness in 2013. The award recognizes achievements to support and mentor growth of women.

“We intend to become a global pacesetter in our industry for bringing diverse perspectives to the table, and we need women to hold an important seat at that table, working to solve the issues affecting our world.” – James (Jim) R. Fitterling
Vice Chairman, Business Operations, Dow AgroSciences

And that…is how you start to fix a leaky bucket.

Why Women Don’t Grab The Brass Ring

brass ring

There are sharply different views of women and men in the workplace, according to findings of a major study conducted this fall by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co. The study gathered data on promotions, attrition and career paths at 118 companies and surveyed nearly 30,000 men and women in the workplace.

Equal numbers of men and women say they want to be promoted; but as men’s desires for big jobs rises over their careers, only 43% of women say they want to be a top executive, according to the research. Today, women make up only 17% of people in the executive suite. The survey shows that women are 15% less likely than men to be promoted to the next level. That means at the current pace, it will be more than a century before there is gender equality in the C-suite.

The business women I know don’t lack for ambition. Women who work in a farming operations are made up of pure grit and love of the land. But rural America has the same issues with fewer women than men owning and running businesses as they do in the corporate world.

Why is this? I’m no social scientist, but much of women’s progress in rural America is cultural: for decades women worked inside the farmhouse, men worked outside. There is no wrong to this cultural pattern, but it may have precluded many daughters from coming back to the farm.

That’s not the case today. Times are changing and I see more and more young women coming back to the farm to work side-by-side with their fathers and brothers. I see women who have MBAs coming home to manage the business side of the operation. I see more women owning farms and developing diversity in ag operations: livestock subsidiaries, farmer’s market offerings, agritourism, and high-tech ideas for sustainable row crop farming.

As I always say, it takes brains to run a farm these days, not just brawn. The more women realize this about the vocation of farming, the more women will be able to grab the brass ring of ownership in agriculture.

Too Busy For Your Business?

How many times a week do you hear the words “I’m too busy” from a friend or colleague? It seems we are all busy. Too busy. Soooooo busy. Over the course of my career, and now with kids ranging from second grade to high school, I have often answered the request for a business project with the words “I’m too busy.”

But are we all really TOO busy? Or are our priorities in the wrong order? There is an entire genre of nonfiction dedicated to organizing, cleaning up and freeing up time in your life (trust me, I’ve read them all). But I believe the best advice boils down to just a couple of simple tips:

  1. Let go of perfectionism. Many women are overachievers, a habit that can develop from an early age. A healthier option is not to aim for perfection, but to aim for EXCELLENCE.
  2. Unplug. Man I love this one. So many women set up their business so they can work from home. Great idea, right! Yes, but work-at-home situations can also mean a loss of boundaries. It took me a long time to learn to not check emails constantly (and I honestly still glance at them while stirring spaghetti). But the time away from our phones is time to reenergize.
  3. Get a life. I used to have a life, way back in my 20s. Then I became a professional and then a mother. And then my life became someone else’s life. I can be resentful…or I can go find hobbies outside of work and kids. I recently started horseback riding again, something I relished in my youth on our ranch. What I love most about this activity is that it’s truly impossible to cantor a horse and check email on your iPhone (I have tried). So for one hour I can put away the world. One hour equals a lifetime in some stressful weeks.

Work/life balance is all the rage, but I honestly don’t believe there is a balance. Instead, I believe there is a season in life for all things. There is a season on the farm when work comes first (planting, harvest). There is a season in life when kids take priority. And there is a season when your business demands your full attention. Can we have it all? Yes, but maybe not all at the same time.

I challenge you this week to let go of perfectionism, unplug and get a life. Maybe not in that order! Your business will benefit from those three things.

Find Your Networking Event

Life on the farm can be very exciting, very diverse…and very lonely. Especially for executive women in farm businesses who are running multi-million dollar operations in rural locations. It’s hard to find like-minded peers when you are 10 miles off the highway!

Luckily, more great networking opportunities are popping up for women in agriculture. One of my favorites (yes, I’m biased) is the annual Executive Women in Agriculture event in Chicago, Dec. 3-4 at the Palmer House Hilton.

Now in its fifth year, Top Producer’s Executive Women in Agriculture Conference continues to feature dynamic keynote speakers and educational breakout sessions, as well as an evening networking reception. Topics at this year’s conference include macro forces affecting ag markets, succession planning advice, time management tips, business diversification strategies, consumer trends and a panel discussion with women farm owners, managers and decision-makers.

“About 30% of U.S. farm operators are women, according to USDA,” said Top Producer Editor Sara Schafer. “These women are primary operators, human resource managers, record-keepers and support staff for cutting-edge operations. The Executive Women in Agriculture conference comes at a monumental time as we transition a large percentage of farms to the next generation and as more women are working in agriculture.”

A few speaker highlights for 2015:

Beth Ford is executive vice president and chief supply chain and operations officer for Land O’Lakes, Inc. She is responsible for taking products and services from insight to customer delivery in the U.S. and globally. She’ll discuss the integral role women have in agriculture and what’s ahead for the industry.

Chris Soules co-owns the family’s third generation farming operation, Soules Farms, in partnership with parents in Arlington, Iowa. He is also a television star from The Bachelor, Dancing with the Stars and Worst Cooks in America: Celebrity Edition.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including “I Know How She Does It”, “What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast”, and “168 Hours”. Her work has appeared in Fast Company, Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and other publications. She will provide key insight on how to balance farm, family and other responsibilities.

More information can be found at