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Opportunities in agriculture are ripe for women

Beth Ford for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 October 2018
Opportunities in agriculture are ripe for women

Last September, I was invited to deliver the keynote address at the sixth annual Women in Agribusiness Summit, which was held this year in the Land O’Lakes hometown of Minneapolis. I accepted enthusiastically and, specifically, was asked to discuss “Navigating Ag’s Disrupted Environment: Why Ag Is Still Right for Women.”

The topic couldn’t be timelier or closer to home for me. As a senior leader of a century-old, farmer-owned dairy cooperative, navigating ag’s disrupted environment is top-of-mind for me every day. It’s basically my job description.

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While it is true food and agriculture companies are grappling with unfamiliar and conflicting demands, a disrupted environment is in no way unique to agriculture.

All industries are feeling the effects of tumultuous national and international climates, disrupted trade environments, natural disasters, changing consumer preferences, unexpected competitors and more.

All those challenges are calling for different ways of thinking in business and are demanding new leaders with bold ideas. In agriculture, our specific headwinds fall into some of these categories:

  • Tumultuous climates and trade: Record grain and dairy production around the world are leading to commodity price declines.

    This production is in some ways driving, or at least coupled with, a continued march toward consolidation throughout the sector as major suppliers, co-ops and farmers work to gain scale leverage.

  • Changing consumer preferences: In the associated food production and consumer packaged goods industry, consumers have increasing demands for transparency in food ingredients and are making values-based decisions when it comes to their food choices.

    This means they are considering not just their own values but also the values of the food company and whether they truly align with the “healthy” food that company is marketing.

    This change has moved consumers away from the center of the store and packaged foods.

  • Unexpected competitors: At the same time, we see significant disruption in the grocery retail environment with new entrants, creating pressure on pricing and pressure to innovate.

And while all of this is happening, the fundamental challenge and purpose of agribusiness and food production remains: We must feed nearly 10 billion people by 2050. To do this, we must grow 70 percent more food with less available land and water.

So why does this mean agriculture is still right for women? For starters, agriculture has always been right for women. However, these new uncertainties and new ways of doing things are creating different pathways, not just within agriculture but to the top.

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This is why I was so encouraged that hundreds of women – many of them young women just starting their careers – came to the Women in Agribusiness Summit.

The fact they showed up tells me they’re not discouraged by our industry’s current landscape but instead view it the same way I do: as an enormous opportunity to solve some of the country’s – and world’s – most important challenges.

And they are not alone. I’ve seen this at every other agriculture presentation I’ve attended this year. It’s encouraging and energizing to see this level of interest from women.

A dynamic industry that’s poised for growth and offers a robust career while making a significant difference in the world? Sign us up.

A place that is “right” for women. A perfect fit.

Why? Resilience. Women are resilient, able to deliver a calf in a field in the morning and be back to harvest by the afternoon. Now, that’s an extreme, but you get my point – women get the job done.

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Now is the time for the next generation of trailblazing leaders who think creatively and act strategically to step up to the plate.

We already have a strong network of women in agriculture, and we need to make sure we’re providing networking and mentoring support so women who are at the earlier levels of their careers feel confident aspiring to leadership roles.

So how can women in agriculture make the most of this opportunity? Here are a few lessons from my career I shared at the Women in Agribusiness Summit:

  • Invest in yourself: Own your own development. Whether you spend your days in the field or in an office, your future success is largely determined by your willingness to be continually improving.

    Be open to and proactively seek out opportunities that allow you to keep learning. Investing in yourself can take many forms: furthering your education, learning new skills and prioritizing work/life balance are all ways of investing in yourself.

  • Move to another function to broaden your skills: Be intellectually curious and branch out. Take the field assignments. Work in a role in which your skill set doesn’t perfectly align.

    Learning the different facets of your organization is key to becoming a valued (and invaluable) team member. Having broad knowledge and know-how will set you apart and give you the perspective necessary to stand out as a leader.

  • Make yourself well-known: Network. Meet people at all levels and across all segments of our industry. Become a name synonymous with motivation: motivation to meet people, to learn from them, to become a trusted and relied-upon industry source, to do purpose-driven work and to contribute. With this, you’ll go far.

  • Seek leadership opportunities: I strongly believe people derive a unique sense of purpose from the experience of leading people. Learning to lead will help you develop credibility with colleagues at all levels in your organization.

    Leaders of people rise to the top. You must have a willingness to bring others along and invest in these individuals as you invest in yourself.

  • Work your plan with confidence, optimism and resilience: Once you’ve decided what you want and where you want to go, have trust in your plan and work it with confidence.

    Pair that confidence with optimism and resilience, and you’ll achieve much. Resiliency is perhaps the most challenging, but most imperative, trait to master. Life can be bumpy, but that’s part of the journey.

Our industry offers the unique opportunity to make a difference in the lives of every person on the planet, every time they eat.

Despite the current climate rife with industry challenges, adversity and uncertainties, opportunity awaits. Now more than ever, it’s our time to rise to the occasion and shine.  end mark

Illustration: Illustration by Sarah Johnson.

Beth Ford is the Group Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Land O’Lakes Inc.

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