Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Women in Agriculture Conference focuses on leadership

Women operate nearly a third of the 3.3 million farms in the United States, and they farm more than 301 million acres.

Women in Agriculture Conference participants listen to keynote speaker
Anne Schwartz in a classroom at the UAF Murie Building.
The statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture may seem surprising to some people, but probably not to participants in the sixth-annual Women in Agriculture Conference. The videoconference event on Saturday drew more than 50 women farmers and agency representatives to three sites in Alaska. They joined about 550 participants at 37 sites in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

Alaska farmers participated at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, in Delta Junction and at the Matanuska Experiment Farm in Palmer. They included part-time and full-time women farmers who raised a variety of crops and animals — peonies and other flowers, vegetables, hay, barley, oats, buffalo, cattle, horses, poultry, rabbits and dairy cows.

The conference, because of the different time zones, started early in Alaska, at 7:30 a.m. The theme was leadership. Conference chair Margaret Viebrock provided an overview of the day’s events and encouraged women to watch for a USDA agricultural census coming in December.

“Let’s stand up and be counted for what we do,” she said, adding that the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides loans and marketing programs based on that information.

Viebrock said that women have been involved in agriculture a long time. She showed photographs of women on tractors taken during a World War II-era “tractorette” training at Washington State College, which is now Washington State University, the conference host.

Keynote speaker Alexis Taylor stressed the importance of letting young people know that there are a lot of careers in agriculture — on and off the farm.

Taylor, who grew up on a corn and soybean farm in Iowa, said that experience convinced her that she did not want to farm but she has had a good career working in agriculture. She served as an executive with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and, most recently, as the director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Taylor said she benefited from mentors, and she challenged participants to get a mentor or to mentor someone. She also encouraged young women to find an agricultural internship or to ask a farmer or agency for an internship.

“We as women are natural networkers,” she said.

Taylor also encouraged participants to get involved in agricultural policy making at the community or state level. Women are underrepresented on boards and commissions that would benefit by increased diversity, she said.

The other keynote speaker, Anne Swartz, lives on a small farm in western Washington and grows vegetables and fruit. She describes herself as an activist working for the protection of soil and natural resources. She encourages activism and volunteerism at the local, state or national levels.

“My goal today is to inspire you to leave your farm a little bit,” she said. “Agriculture needs advocates.”

Several participants at the Fairbanks site were part-time farmers who hoped to become full-time after retiring from another job.

Beth Cender and her husband bought acreage near Kenny Lake in 2008 and have been raising hay and selling a variety of herbs and vegetables to area residents. Cender moved to Fairbanks for a job with the Division of Forestry but she hopes to return to Kenny Lake and farming when she retires in a few years. Her husband continues to farm on a reduced scale and she helps when she can.

Saturday was Cender’s second Women in Agriculture Conference. “It’s a way of connecting with other people interested in agriculture,” she said.

Ronda Schlumbohm, a teacher at Salcha Elementary School, was also attending the conference for the second time. She says, “I grow kids in the winter and peonies in the summer.”

She and her husband, Brian, planted 300 peony roots in 2014 and have since planted 1,700 more at their place off the Eielson Farm Road. Eventually she hopes to grow flowers full-time.

She said the conference is valuable to her because it helps her understand farming. “I think you have to get out there to figure things out,” she said.

The School of Natural Resources and Extension hosted the conference at UAF, and with Alaska Farmland Trust, at the Matanuska Experiment Farm and Extension Center. The Salcha-Delta Soil and Water Conservation District hosted the event in Delta Junction.

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