I give a lot of outlook presentations at grain marketing meetings. I am also a farmer who attends some of the many types of meetings put on for our kind -- bank meetings, co-op dinners, seed company sales pitches, etc. Let's just say I'm familiar with the view from both sides of the podium. In my opinion, there's one side of that podium that is easier to occupy, as a female, than the other, and I worry about the long-term implications this may have for North American agriculture.
Now, I'm not someone who is easily intimidated. Public speaking in front of 500 people? No problem. Public speaking in front of 50 African farmers who don't speak English and may never have met a white American before? Also not a problem. This month I'm in Uganda doing a series of grain marketing meetings for USAID's Farmer-to-Farmer program, which is administered in East Africa by Catholic Relief Services, and honestly, with a good translator and a flip chart, it's no sweat. (Well, it's sweaty, but I'm slowly adjusting to the heat.)
As long as I am given a defined role and a little bit of introduction, I have zero problems with being the only woman or one of just a few women in any given venue full of farmers. It's only when, back home, I creep into the back row of chairs at pesticide applicator training and feel dozens of sidelong glances from underneath seed caps, I start to feel self-conscious. Are the other farmers looking at me and wondering why I'm there? Should I not be there? Do I not belong? USDA's 2013 Agricultural Resource Management Survey shows there are 220,000 female principal farm operators in the country (a little over 10% of the total), as well as half a million wives involved in the day-to-day work and decision-making on U.S. farms, so I doubt that I'm alone in feeling this anxiety. But frankly, it makes me not want to go to any more meetings.
This is one way -- maybe the only way -- that African farmers have us in the United States beat. Women farmers' participation is strong at my Farmer-to-Farmer events. At one presentation I gave under a mango tree, there were 17 men and 16 women. Maybe it's more natural for the women here to attend farm meetings than it has been for women in the United States because Africa has a longer history of farm labor being shared by both genders. If both men and women hoe the crops, shouldn't both men and women learn about the markets?
There was a time in Uganda, not so long ago, when women were shut out of farm meetings. When only men attended the training, then only half of a region's farmers received the benefit. So if the international development community was trying to improve a country's food security or improve households' annual income, they had to set a goal to reach the broader population of both genders of farmers, ideally in a 50/50 ratio. Sure enough, in the years since the Namubuka Farmers Cooperative (my hosts here in Uganda) have insisted on training both men and women, the men's productivity has increased 83% (to 43 bushels per acre) and the women, who were starting at only 300 kilograms of maize per acre, have more than doubled their productivity to 850 kg per acre (that's 33 bushels per acre).
How did the organization achieve this? What is the successful strategy that encourages more women to attend farm meetings? It's a question that interests not just international development programs, but also farm organizations in the United States, which have noticed the lack of diversity in their membership and started to ponder what should or can be done about that.
Well, here's the radical tactic used in Africa: The organizers asked the women to attend.
When an event is planned, the mobilizers simply make a point to call both women and men on their cellphones and ask them all to show up on Tuesday after lunch in front of the village's grain warehouse. Easy as that. I like that it doesn't segregate the women into some separate-but-equal club, even if they might have felt more comfortable initially, because then the women wouldn't hear the same discussion that the men hear and the men wouldn't hear the same discussion that the women hear.
I hope that U.S. farm groups try the same tactic. We may not be overly worried about food security and raising the yields of our least productive farmers, but nevertheless, there are risks to the entire industry if we proceed without greater inclusion. The optics of the situation are one risk. If our customers and our customers' customers get an image stuck in their head of conventional farming being nothing but "stale, male, and pale," that might make it harder to sell our products to modern consumers who care about such things. It could make it harder to sustain political support for government farm programs, like crop insurance, which do indeed depend on the goodwill of the American voter.
Diversification is good for crop rotation, good for marketing strategies, and good for income streams. At my market outlook meetings in the U.S., I often show a mathematical simulation demonstrating that the standard deviation of financial returns in a portfolio with four commodities is half the standard deviation of one with only corn and soybeans, implying that diversification into multiple crops can reduce the volatility of an operation's revenue. If one crop has a poor year, income from the other non-correlated products should stabilize the farm from year to year. Something like that is probably true for the demographics of any organization or any industry, too. We don't want all our risk to be concentrated in any one segment, and it's always wise to solicit as many ideas and as much energy from as many different sources as possible.
All this is as true for the agriculture industry in general as it is for farmers specifically. I was delighted, when I walked in the front door of the Namubuka Farmers' Cooperative, to see Enid Namulwa, an agribusiness graduate of Makerere University, sitting in the manager's position. In the U.S., what proportion of agronomists are female? Of seed salespeople? Of grain merchandisers? Frankly, in 2016, some grain trading companies aren't doing so well, financially, that they might not merit a re-think of the Old Boys Club. Maybe more ideas and more trading styles from more types of people could make them more successful.
We might think that this will be a self-solving problem as time moves on and new generations of young women start actively farming and unabashedly pursuing careers in agriculture. But will they even pursue those careers if the industry makes them feel weird and unwelcome? Will agriculture lose half the potential bright minds it could have otherwise attracted?
Each additional woman at a farm meeting makes it less uncomfortable for the next one to walk in that door. There is probably some critical mass of woman farmers in a room that would make it feel as natural as walking into a school or a church or a concert or a movie theater. To reach that point, I don't think we need to be bribed with girlie trinkets or shunted off to a girls-only room in order to want to participate. If farm organizations want to get more women to join -- and they should -- maybe all they have to do is ask.
Elaine Kub is the author of "Mastering the Grain Markets: How Profits Are Really Made" and can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @elainekub.
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