Women in ag still ‘a novelty’
When Amelia Levin married Russell Kent, it was a union of vows and cows.But the couple, newly married in May, began consolidating their cattle herds long before they said “I do.”
Levin, a farm owner and manager, is one of seven women who traveled to Brazil earlier this spring as part of the Louisiana State University AgCenter’s Agricultural Leadership Development Program. While in Brazil, she got a glimpse of a culture where women are struggling to take a bigger role in farming.
• Louisiana farm woman is surrounded by role models.
• In Brazil, ag is a man’s world, Louisiana women find.
• Women in the U.S. are finding their way in agriculture.
A graduate of Wellesley College, near Boston, with a degree in economics and religion, Levin is co-owner and manager of J Bar L Farm in Tangipahoa Parish where she produces beef cattle and hay with her mother and sister. She’s also the part owner of a nursery and a 1,000-acre tree farm.
Several role models
“I’m surrounded by women having leadership roles in agriculture and not by women in support roles,” Levin says. “I’m using my family as an example. The nursery is my grandmother’s. My mom runs it and, granted, my grandfather operated the nursery while he was alive, but when he died, my mom was the one who stepped up and picked up the slack.
“So, for me, I don’t necessarily see women’s roles in agriculture as a novelty because I see it every day,” Levin continued. “I’m surrounded by it, if only from my family’s point of view.”
During her 13 days in Brazil, Levin — along with classmates Jennifer Peterman, Epney Brasher, Donna Morgan, Joyce Allen, Jeannine Meads and Jennifer Young — got a glimpse of male-dominated agriculture. In Brazil men operate or manage just about every major farming operation in the country. On March 8, farm women from across Brazil protested at various locations around the country in an effort to call attention to the lack of “food sovereignty” and to petition for equality in agriculture.
According to Natalie Hummel, an assistant professor at the LSU AgCenter who specializes in rice pests, women are still working to find their place on the American farm scene as well.
“In the field of agriculture women are still gaining a foothold,” Hummel says. “Whether or not a woman can envision herself in that role is probably the biggest key to her success.”
For Epney Brasher success came in the aftermath of tragedy. A forestry supervisor for the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Brasher became the de facto spokeswoman for the forestry industry following Hurricane Katrina.
The storm cost Louisiana timber producers and processors more than 3 billion board feet of lost product. Brasher found herself taking news crews from across the country into the hardest-hit areas. Since then, she’s been the go-to person for forestry issues in the Florida parishes of southeast Louisiana.
“I’ve been doing this for so long it’s not even an issue,” Brasher says. “All the forestry guys know me.”
For nearly a decade Donna Morgan has been working to educate farmers. The LSU AgCenter assistant county agent has coordinated the training sessions for the state’s Master Farmer program. With a focus on environmental issues, Morgan, who holds an agribusiness degree from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, says technology is the key to keeping all farmers, regardless of gender, in business.
“The LSU AgCenter understands that in order to be profitable, farmers must have the latest technology,” Morgan says. “They’ve made it their mission to develop new varieties and new production practices that will make them money while, hopefully, reducing the impact of regulation.”
One of Morgan’s duties in the Master Farmer program is to make sure farmers understand that unless they take on personal responsibility for their production practices, Washington may do it for them.
As Mid-South agriculture enters its second decade of the new century, farming is changing and adapting. Women in agriculture, says Levin, will do the same.
“Right now we are few and far between,” Levin says. “But I think that as society changes, there will be changes in the agricultural industries as well.”
Danna writes from St. Francisville, La.
This article published in the July, 2010 edition of MID-SOUTH FARMER.