More than 1 million women either own or operate farms across the country, according to Krysta Harden, a U.S. deputy agricultural secretary.
“Women have been involved in agriculture forever, from field to fork,” Harden said. But more women now are taking leadership roles.
Harden spoke Wednesday at a summit on women in agriculture at the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus hosted by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
The speakers called for more women to consider careers in the agriculture industry. Others, who are successful in the field, also spoke to the nearly 100 attendees.
“Agriculture is about a lot more than growing crops,” Klobuchar said. “It works to provide real and measurable benefits for our economy.”
Technology has improved so much that farming is not as labor intensive as it once was, Harden said, providing more opportunities for women both in growing food and in dozens of ag-related careers.
“Only 1 percent of our population feeds the other 99 percent,” she said. “We need everybody, and we need women’s voices and leadership.”
On the front lines of introducing people to farming in Minnesota is the Land Stewardship Project, a nonprofit based in Minneapolis that offers in-depth courses on the economics, science and environmental sustainability of growing food.
Amy Bacigalupo, director of the Project’s Farm Beginnings program, said that in 18 years it has trained 750 people — 60 percent of them women.
“There’s a next crop of women farmers and women leaders among us,” she said, and many had no previous farming background.
“They’re coming because they care about their food and they care about where their food comes from,” Bacigalupo said, “and that gets them down a path of starting to grow it for themselves.”
Pakou Hang, executive director of the Hmong-American Farmers Association, said that farming is very difficult for newcomers to break into, whether they are men, women or minorities.
The biggest obstacles are access to land, new markets, capital and credit, and research and other resources, Hang said. The Association runs a 155-acre farm in Dakota County with 18 growers who sell mainly in metro farmers markets.
Shelly DePestel, a fifth-generation dairy producer near Lewiston in southeastern Minnesota and a board member of the Minnesota Milk Producers, said having a summit helps give more focus to women who are involved in agriculture and allows them to share their stories.
“It’s nice to see a large group of women who are very dedicated and passionate about agriculture,” she said. “It’s really good to step off the farm and communicate with other women who are doing the same types of things.”
Alise Sjostrom, president of Redhead Creamery and one of the younger farmers at the meeting, said building connections with other women in agriculture is inspiring.
“It’s one of those things that builds your energy back up and reminds me of why I’m doing what I am,” she said. Sjostrom co-owns and operates a 180-cow dairy with her husband and parents near Brooten, in central Minnesota.
“I rarely leave home because we dairy farm and make cheese,” she said. “Everything I do is 50 feet from my house.”