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Ashley Kohls has many roles in agriculture. One of them is serving as executive director of the Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association. Derek Fletcher / Forum News Service

'Not built to be a stay-at-home mom': Women's ag roles expand

Women have been essential to Upper Midwest agriculture since the first homesteaders arrived. They've tended livestock, driven tractors, kept books, cared for their children and much more, traditionally concentrating on their family operation.

But women's role in agriculture is broader and more diverse than ever. Reflecting on what's happening in society overall, women increasingly work off their family farm or ranch and serve in positions once held almost exclusively by men.

"As far as agribusiness, I see it's changing across all the demographics. There's a growing number of women holding those positions. It's changing dramatically," says Amy Pravecek, president of South Dakota Women in Agriculture.

Statistics from several surveys and studies conducted at different times illustrate the increase in women's roles in agriculture. More than half of all bachelor's degrees awarded in agriculture go to women, as well as 52 percent of doctorates in biological and agricultural science.

The number of women earning bachelor's degrees in agricultural mechanization and engineering rose 49 percent from 2004 to 2012, about 55 percent of veterinarians are women, and women now account for more than 80 percent of veterinary medicine students.

Many women in positions traditionally held by men say they sometimes experienced skepticism or resistance or both from some agriculturalists, particularly older men.

"I think women who first filled those positions had a much harder time than women today," Pravecek says. "I don't think that perception is there anymore. Especially with the younger generation. To them, it doesn't matter if it's a man or woman.".

Women, especially ones helping to run a farm or ranch, still face challenges, Pravecek says.

Besides their on-farm duties, "They're still the primary caregivers for children at home. They still have household duties. So they're pulling double-duty in some ways," she says.

One woman, several ag hats

Ashley Kohls smiles when asked how she would have fit into area agriculture a few decades ago, when women generally were confined to traditional roles on their family farming operations.

"Well, I know I'm just not built be a stay-at-home mom," she says.

Kohls, a mother of two children, has certainly taken advantage of the expanded career opportunities available in modern agriculture. She's executive director of the Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association, Beef Quality Assurance coordinator in Minnesota and she runs a cattle operation in Hutchinson, Minn., with her husband, Craig.

Her previous professional experience includes working at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Lab and serving as quality assurance manager at First District Association, an independent dairy cooperative based in Litchfield, Minn.

Working off the farm has always been important to Ashley, both for professional satisfaction and the additional income it brought. Agricultural economists stress the importance of off-farm income, and farm families cite the value of health insurance that an off-farm job sometimes provides.

Her first job, at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, was satisfying — though the hour-long, one-way commute was not

The Beef Quality Assurance's Minnesota office is in the Twin Cities area. In her role with the cattlemen's association, "I'm wherever they need me. I home-office a lot." she says. "When I'm not able to be here, Craig can be here, so it works out really well for my family."

The amount of time spent away from home "depends on the season. December through March (a period sometimes known as winter meeting season) gets crazy," she says.

One recent highlight was an educational trip, sponsored by the U.S. Meat Export Federation, in which Kohls and others spent four days in Japan and four days in China.

"The potential is just incredible," especially in China. "Beijing (alone) has 21 million people. Getting each of them to eat just one more pound of beef (annually) would be huge," Kohls says.


Kohls, asked if she's ever experienced resentment or resistance because of her gender, says, "It's not prevalent as it once was. But I've felt it, on the policy side (of the cattle industry). It can be intimidating walking into a room of men. There can be a little bit of insecurity of being a woman in a man's worlds. I try not to (feel insecure), but it's hard not to."

She says she and other women in non-traditional ag roles don't want special treatment.

"We don't want to be recognized for being women. We want to be recognized for being good at what we do," she says.