Women in Agriculture: Taking on the Diverse Challenges of Agriculture

Feb 22, 2021

By Barb Baylor Anderson • From Winter 2021 American Soybean magazine

Addressing the challenges that come with careers in agriculture today is less about being female than it is about finding a fitting role. Discovering the right niche or passion can fuel a career, whether in agriculture advocacy, agronomy and conservation, or farm business management.

Farm and ag advocate 

In addition to consulting work on strategies for change in crop insurance and climate and conservation issues, Kristin Weeks Duncanson is an owner and partner in her family farm near Mapleton, Minnesota.

Kristin Weeks Duncanson is as comfortable in a D.C. lawmaker’s office as she is helping manage her family’s Minnesota farm. And she fills in the rest of her time serving in leadership roles of various community and agriculture organizations to advocate for related causes.

“You have to always be learning,” says Duncanson. “And I have a very supportive family.”

Duncanson is an owner and partner of Highland Family Farms near Mapleton, Minnesota. She and her husband, Pat, raise corn, soybeans, small grains and hogs, in addition to rye for a local distillery. Two of their four children work for the farm.

Duncanson also is a consultant for K-Coe Isom, a business, accounting and sustainability strategy firm, where she currently advises on transformational change in crop insurance, climate and conservation issues to demonstrate how farmers can be part of the long-term solutions.

“My background is in political science and communications. I started out 40 years ago doing public policy work in D.C. for a Minnesota senator on the ag, nutrition and forestry committee,” she says. “I came back to Minnesota with my husband some 30 years ago to farm.”

Duncanson at that time took a job in dairy feed sales, the first woman hired by the company. “Sure, there were challenges as a woman in agriculture,” she says. “Farmers tested my knowledge. I always made sure I had all the information I needed. I prefer to be overprepared.”

Over the years, Duncanson has volunteered as an advisor at the Meridian Institute’s Agree project and is a former and first woman chair of the Minnesota AgriGrowth Council. She led Feeding Our Communities Partners, as well as served as the first female chair for the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association. She is a trustee with the Upper Midwest Nature Conservancy.

“Sustainability and commodity board leadership are both great areas of opportunity for women in agriculture,” she says. “In D.C., it is often to your advantage to be female because you stand out and get remembered. But you also must be ready to do your job as well as you can.”

Her Advice: “You have to know your stuff,” Duncanson says. “Determine what you want to champion and do your homework. Be resilient and always be true to yourself.”

Plant geneticist and researcher

A researcher with a Ph.D. in plant genetics and breeding, Joyce Berger-Doyle also helps on the family farm and with the family seed business.

Joyce Berger-Doyle wears many ag career hats. She farms with her husband Brad and son Cody. She is the research coordinator for the Mid-South Soybean Board, a Ph.D. plant geneticist and breeder and sometimes seed salesperson for their family’s Eagle Seed Company in Weiner, Arkansas. She also does private research under the Eagle Research, LLC, moniker.

She says none of those jobs seem to have ever been affected by the fact she is female.

“I grew up in farming and my parents encouraged me to do what I loved,” she says. “I watched my mom run the seed company and raise five children at the same time. She also worked with my dad helping to breed plants. She learned how to do it all.”

Doyle earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Arkansas State. She then changed course with a master’s degree in agronomy. Her Ph.D. was done at the University of Arkansas under Pengyin Chen, Ph.D., who now heads soybean breeding at the University of Missouri.

“You have to work very hard and be interdisciplinary. Farmers don’t do just one thing,” she says.

One of Doyle’s current research projects involves ASA and a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. The group is highly interested in keeping the Mississippi River clean, so Doyle is exploring agricultural contributions. Specifically, she is evaluating what cover crops work best in traditionally wet Arkansas soils to keep dirt out of the waterways. She is testing a number of cover crop seed blends for aerial application and recruiting farmers in the state to participate.

“With nearly one million women farmers, now is the best time to encourage women to go into farming. There are many job opportunities for hard workers,” she says.

Her Advice:Anything is hard at first,” Doyle says. “Be resourceful and learn as you go. Find someone who is good at what you want to do and ask them to be your mentor.”

Family enterprise HR specialist

Elizabeth Jack handles human resources for her family’s farm operation and trucking company near Belzoni, Mississippi. She also handles public relations, landlord relations and safety and compliance programs for the businesses.

Elizabeth Jack grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, getting her undergraduate degree in mathematics and psychology from Ole Miss and an MBA from Millsaps College. Little did she know, working for a Mississippi Senator following graduation would lead to her future in agriculture.

“I met Jeremy when we were both working in Senator Thad Cochran’s office. We married and moved to the Mississippi Delta. Jeremy planned to work on his family’s farm. My grandparents farmed close by. I had been in the area and seen the Jack farm but did not know them,” she says.

Jeremy now heads the family’s Silent Shade Planting Co. and trucking company, Willard Jack Trucking, near Belzoni, Miss. They grow 11,000 acres of irrigated soybeans, cotton, rice and corn. Jeremy’s sister, Stacie Koger, and parents, Willard and Laura Lee Jack, are also involved.

Elizabeth worked for a local bank for six years before joining the farm. “When I was in HR at the bank, the farm grew from 3,500 acres to 11,000. Jeremy knew they could use my skills,” she says. “I do HR for both of the Silent Shade enterprises, public relations and landlord relations and coordinate our safety and compliance programs for the farm and the trucking business.”

Since she was new to agriculture, Jeremy suggested she attend TEPAP (The Executive Program for Agricultural Producers), which teaches advanced agribusiness skills to attendees.

“In human resources, I was used to many women being part of professional development meetings, and TEPAP was 95% men,” she recalls. “It was challenging to network, but Stacie and I saw Jeremy participating in a peer group, and we decided we could do the same.”

About seven years ago, the pair started a group with six other women from Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Ohio, and Kentucky that all work in various ag roles. Members of the group range in age from 27-47 with 5,000 to 20,000 acres of row crops per farm. They meet in a central location each January and travel to one of their farms during the summer.

“Our peer group is an opportunity to get together and be very transparent with each other and compare notes on family farm issues, financials, insurance, using social media and more,” she says. “It has helped us a lot. Sometimes on a family farm, you don’t want to discuss specifics with a neighbor. Through a peer group outside of your area, it is easier to get other perspectives.”

Her Advice: “Love what you do,” Jack says. “Take advantage of professional development and bring your knowledge to the table. Network with others to keep up with a changing industry.”