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The ag gender gap

Women find myriad of opportunities in agriculture industry

Poultry grower Delean Robertson of Pike County is one of the recent participants in the Mississippi Women in Agriculture, now called Women for Agriculture.

Poultry grower Delean Robertson of Pike County is one of the recent participants in the Mississippi Women in Agriculture, now called Women for Agriculture.

Certainty is hard to come by. The only thing certain in Lindsey Ellzey’s life is uncertainty. A farmer in Jones County, Ellzey feels there ought to be more awareness of and support for women in agriculture in Mississippi, and she is one of many females in agriculture-related endeavors welcoming the upcoming Mississippi Women for Agriculture Conference at Mississippi State in Starkville.

“I wake up every day and wonder what hat I am going to be asked to wear,” said Ellzey, who along with her husband, Jason, runs a mixed farming operation of poultry, cattle and blueberries. “Jason tells me all the time that he depends on me to help make decisions about our operations. I’m not just a bookkeeper — I am part of the decision-making process.”

Joan Thompson took a break from her work to speak to the Mississippi Business Journal for this story. She was busy with her apiary near Philadelphia, which is in the process of being expanding from 125 beehives to 200.

“There is no better place to raise a family than on a farm,” Thompson said. She is a member of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation’s Women’s Committee, and said more needs to be done to encourage women to look at agriculture as a viable career. “I don’t have any female friends who are farmers. We have to do more to encourage them,” she added.

New to the 2011 Mississippi Women for Agriculture Conference will be a forum of the candidates for the state’s next agriculture commissioner. One of those candidates is State Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (left), who runs a three-state cattle operation. If elected, she would be Mississippi’s first female agriculture commissioner.

New to the 2011 Mississippi Women for Agriculture Conference will be a forum of the candidates for the state’s next agriculture commissioner. One of those candidates is State Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (left), who runs a three-state cattle operation. If elected, she would be Mississippi’s first female agriculture commissioner.

Ellzey, who is also active with the Farm Bureau Federation, said she, too, has no female farmer-friends, and education is much needed. “When I first started promoting the Farm Bureau, most people in this area thought they were only about insurance,” she said.

Both Ellzey and Thompson expressed their support for the Women for Agriculture Conference, which will be held April 12-14 at the Bost Extension Center on the Starkville campus of Mississippi State University. This is not the organization’s first conference, but it does mark something of a beginning.

Mississippi Women for Agriculture is a continuation of the MSU and partners’ Women in Agriculture education program. The group looks to increase the knowledge and skills of women in all aspects of farm and agribusiness management through educational and networking opportunities.

Sylvia Clark, vice president of Mississippi Women for Agriculture, said her association began as Women in Agriculture a couple of years ago, funded by a grant that has since expired. So, the group is reorganizing. It has established bylaws and changed its name to Mississippi Women for Agriculture.

“We changed the name from Women in Agriculture to Women for Agriculture to stress that there are plenty of agriculture-related careers available to women beyond the farm,” Clark said. “The mission of the organization is helping women understand different aspects of agriculture such as risk management, credit and marketing.”

Among the many activities planned for the Starkville conference include election of new officers of Women for Agriculture (previous officers were volunteers), presentation of the Dianne Evans Lecture Award, networking and a forestry tour.

New this year is a forum of the candidates for Mississippi’s next agriculture commissioner. Candidates Max Phillips, Dannie Reed and Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith have already committed to attend.

If Hyde-Smith were elected, she would be Mississippi’s first female agriculture commissioner. Hyde-Smith, who runs a three-state cattle operation headquartered in Brookhaven, said she knows if elected she would help open women’s eyes that agriculture is a viable career for them, and that she “feels the responsibility.”

“I want to promote agriculture in general, but I feel even more responsibility for our female farmers,” Hyde-Smith said. “I want to help raise the comfort level of women when it comes to agriculture.

“Usually, unless a woman is raised on a farm she never considers agriculture as a career. They see it as a male-dominated field. In a way, agriculture has an image problem.”

Dr. Maifan Silitonga agrees. She is currently serving as interim director of Alcorn State University’s School of Agriculture, Research, Extension and Applied Sciences, or AREAS.

In her role, she advises farmers about water quality and how it effects agriculture production. Silitonga says she sees few females in her education programs, which does not surprise her. What does have her concerned, however, is that women largely do not understand that there are a myriad of opportunities for women in agriculture beyond just running a farm.

“I am a woman in agriculture, but I don’t go out and farm. I got my Ph.D. so I wouldn’t have to do that,” Silitonga said with a laugh. “There are so many opportunities for women beyond ag production. I am an example.”

Silitonga said women have skills that fit well in agriculture — attention to detail, ability to multi-task and nurturing.

When asked if electing a female agriculture commissioner would help raise awareness among women of agriculture as a career, Silitonga expressed some reservations.

“I was hired here for my ability,” Silitonga said. “It had nothing to with my gender. Personally, I want an agriculture commissioner who is effective. I don’t care about gender.”

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