Agriculture is the lifeblood of the Central Valley, an industry historically dominated by men.
In recent years, however, women are taking a more active role in the ag industry from the family farm to education and leadership.
The number of women as farm operators is increasing at a quicker rate than the number of farmers in general according to American Agriwomen, the national coalition of farm, ranch and agribusiness women’s organizations. The 2007 Census of Agriculture found that of the 3.3 million farm operators in the United States, more than a third were women — which is a 19 percent increase since the 2002 census. While statistics show that women are being increasingly more involved at the production level, women are also increasing in other facets of the industry such as teaching.
The Pitman High School agriculture department is headed by three women with Krista Vannest, who has worked at the school since its opening in 2002, serving as Agriculture Department chair and Future Farmers of America advisor. Partnering with Amanda Bailey and Meghan Silveira, the three women command all areas of agriculture education including welding, floral design, agricultural communications, viticulture and a turf class.
“We are kind of unique in that we are all female, but in California female ag teachers outnumber the men in something like a 60 to 40 ratio,” said Vannest. “Obviously, there are physical limitations at times as a female, but I surprise my students sometimes. My turf class boys especially, they are surprised that I can drive a tractor.”
While women are becoming increasingly involved in the agriculture industry, their contributions are also diversifying. Women are not only ranchers, but are developing other areas of the industry.
“If you are willing to do the work you will earn the respect regardless of your gender,” said Bailey a welding teacher at Pitman who also owns her own floral company. “It’s never been an issue for me.”
Women are also making a difference at the political level of the farming industry. Pamela Sweeten, who runs her own consulting agency on food safety and production, serves as the California Women for Agriculture membership chair and state historian and is also a member of American Agriwomen. With the goal of increasing awareness of the many capacities that women can haven in the industry, Sweeten recognizes that education is the first step.
“As I like to say, it’s a lot more than cow and plows,” said Sweeten. “It’s importance for women to find their passion. Maybe you have a passion for marketing and can help a producer create better connections in the industry. We need ag lobbyists because we are a small majority. There are so many ways to be involved.”
Sweeten is a part of the organization Women in Agriculture for Mentoring and Empowerment, which will be hosting its inaugural leadership conference this spring to offer young women the opportunity to network and gain insight on the ways they can be involved in the ag industry. Resources for women in the industry are increasing as the numbers of females are rising with
44 percent of the over 70,000 FFA members in California being female and more than 50 percent holding state leadership positions.
“I think women are realizing that maybe this is a field where I can own my time and my career,” said Vannest. “I have seen the girls realize that they can aspire to more than what they thought.”