National Western Stock Show: Women’s role in agriculture growing

Among the bustle of Denver’s National Western Stock Show, a group of teenage girls groomed cows in the cattle barns for Iowa’s Bremer Show Cattle.

Addyson Lehman, a 17-year-old from West Liberty, Iowa, grew up on a farm, and her family buys livestock from Bremer. In line with a tradition spanning three generations, she shows heifers, or cows fated to “breed the next generation.”

“Essentially, what we’re doing is that we’re trying to make the most perfect animal,” Lehman said, pointing to desired traits like longevity and ease of birthing. At shows, animals are judged based on their performance in those aspects, she added.

Lehman started in fourth grade, and enjoys performing hands-on jobs. She not only foresees a future in agriculture, but can also “for sure” envision more women joining the industry.

“I like feeling like I can do that labor — you know, the hard stuff,” Lehman said Friday, Jan. 13. “I’ve lived with men my whole life, worked with men, but it’s nice seeing myself be a part of something and be included in that.”

Only 36% of 3.4 million farmers in the U.S. identify as women, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture. As small farm and livestock operations struggle to survive, there hasn’t always been a lot of space for female producers to forge careers in the ever-changing, male-dominated industry. But the latest census offered a glimmer of hope about the future of women in agriculture, as the number grew to about 1.2 million in 2017 from over 969,000 in 2012.

The National Western Stock Show — Denver’s annual two-week livestock, rodeo and horse show that runs through Sunday, Jan. 22 — defines its mission as “to invest in future generations.”

“We are seeing a strong representation of women in ag and youth in general – the future is bright,” said Karen Woods, National Western Stock Show spokesperson.

The country’s female farmers skew younger than their male counterparts, and are more likely to qualify as beginners, the U.S. Agriculture Department reports.

The top challenges for younger farmers include access to land and capital, health care costs, cost of production, housing and student loan debt, according to a 2022 National Young Farmer Survey. Almost 64% of survey respondents identify as female, nonbinary or a gender other than cisgender male, said National Young Farmers Coalition spokesperson Jessica Manly.

The West and Northeast are home to counties with the highest proportion of women-operated farms, with the top states by percentage of female agriculture producers including Arizona, Alaska, New Hampshire, Oregon and, in the No. 9 spot, Colorado.

In the Centennial State, Wild Wellspring Farm is a queer woman-owned and operated farm located east of Boulder, run by Krisan Christensen. Two Roots Farm, which grows vegetables in the Roaring Fork Valley, is owned by Harper Kaufman. In 2019, Taylor Muglia and her husband Ryan started Long Table Farmstead in Lyons.

“Anecdotally, we’ve seen more engaged females in leadership roles in particular,” said Taylor Szilagyi, spokesperson for the Colorado Farm Bureau. She pointed to Janie VanWinkle, past president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, and Connie Hass, past winner of the Denver Business Journal’s Who’s Who in Agriculture Trailblazer Award, as examples.

When VanWinkle filled that role in 2020 and 2021, she counted as the third woman in the 154 years of the organization to serve as president. She grew up on the ranchland of western Colorado — the fourth-generation in her family “to produce high-quality protein here.”

VanWinkle remembers her mother as the “quintessential ranch wife,” who worked with tractors, horses, cows and more alongside her father.

“Who was the face of the ranch? Who did people speak to? It was always my dad,” VanWinkle said in a phone interview. “Women are here, and I think they’ve been here. I just think they haven’t been as visible.”

Around 40 years ago, VanWinkle and her husband built their business with 20 head of cattle and 20 sheep. Now, at VanWinkle Ranch, they’re managing about 550 head of cattle.

“We did not inherit land and assets, but I like to say that I inherited a lot of grit and determination,” she said in a telephone interview.

VanWinkle described the agricultural profession as “a tough life,” with long hours, personal sacrifices and misunderstandings by consumers about food production. But “when I’m riding horseback — and it’s cold and it’s nasty and the wind’s blowing — I think, ‘You know, there’s people that would give anything to be able to do this.’ ”

The couple’s son recently returned to the ranch with his wife and 10-month-old daughter, who will be raised there. “I want her to know that, no matter where she goes, she can always come back.”

“There’s definitely room for more women to be in the ag space,” said Lydia Recker, an 18-year-old Iowan. “Even just us being involved has kind of proved that women are just as capable as men could be in doing this kind of stuff.”

Raised on a farm, Recker watched her father and grandfather grow crops and manage 30 head of cattle. Her mom showed livestock in her youth, and Recker followed her lead. Her family buys calves from Bremer.

“I love it,” Recker said, adding she appreciates the break from city life.

The agriculture industry “definitely” leans male, but she’s interested in pursuing a related trade, such as animal chiropractic. “It kind of makes you feel good that you can do the hard stuff and be capable like all the boys.”

First established in 1928, Future Farmers of America began admitting women in 1969. Now known as the National FFA Organization, its membership currently sits at 44% female, of those who opted to report, said spokesperson Kristy​​ Meyer.

In 1990, about 302,000 men were listed as members, with only around 84,500 women. For the 2020-2021 membership year, the number of men jumped to about 374,000, while participating women skyrocketed to more than 323,000.

“Each year, we see that interest in female membership keeps spiking,” Meyer said in a phone interview. “Female roles in leadership positions at FFA are also growing.”

She estimated that the organization presented the American Star Farmer award to its first female recipient around 15 years ago.

Not only are women joining the agriculture industry, but so are men and nonbinary producers, for a variety of reasons, including sustainability and continuing their families’ legacies, Meyer said. “The more people we have in agriculture, the better it is for our society.”

Don Thorn, executive director of the Colorado FFA Foundation, notes that the organization continues to grow in membership, and “we are really proud that we have great gender equity, which runs really close to 50-50.”

Right now, more women hold leadership positions than men in the organization. “It’s only a matter of time until they will be able to bring more equity to agribusinesses across the country,” he said Thursday.

Cheyenne Bruncker, a 13-year-old from Ottawa, Kan., has helped raise livestock for her family business, Brunker Land & Cattle, for as long as she can remember. “I was kind of born into the deal,” she said at the stock show.

She plans to one day attend Kansas State University for embryology, then “come back to the farm to help out.”

Does Bruncker expect to see more women join the agriculture industry? “I’d hope so. I really want to hang out with a few girls that like the same things I do,” she said.

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