Women are the Future of Agriculture
By Carl Casale, former CEO of CHS and CFO of Monsanto, respectively (October 24, 2023)
(Note: This opinion article first appeared in the Star Tribune - Minneapolis - and is reprinted with permission.)
If not for women entering the farming profession, the next farming crisis might be called "Who will grow our food?"
I was lucky to have a powerful female archetype in farming. As a teen, I spent 10-hour days on my hands and knees, hand-harvesting vegetables and laboriously weeding cucumber and zucchini on our family produce farm. Exhausted, I would look ahead and see my grandmother setting the pace, a cadence she kept well into her 70s. After work, she would make supper and then tend her immaculate flower garden until dark with the same vigor she had displayed in the fields earlier in the day. For years, I struggled to understand why she would choose to toil away in her garden after such long days. Eventually, I realized that this was her sanctuary and joy. Grandma Jenny's unwavering passion, purpose and urgency shaped the person I am today.
My grandmother was truly a pioneer. While women have played a role in U.S. agriculture for centuries, from the early Native American women who farmed the Great Plains to the 2.5 million who kept our farms functioning in World War II, their presence was viewed mostly in supporting or novelty roles.
Today, women in ag are poised to do far more than make incremental gains in a male-dominated field; they are driving a tractor right through the industry's glass ceiling. Agriculture is on track to become female dominated — and we should all be grateful. Without the women who are inspired to make agriculture their passion and career, who would produce our food and fiber in the future?
Consider the shifts underway. Women are operators in half of U.S. farms, with 56% having at least one female decisionmaker. In Minnesota, women are the primary operators of more than a third of all farms, a proportion that continues to grow.
At the university level, we see signs of an incoming wave of future female farmers, surpassing the general trend of more women in college. Data from my alma mater, Oregon State University, aligns with trends from land grant institutions across America. Although overall female enrollment at OSU accounts for 51% of the student population, the College of Agricultural Sciences has seen a dramatic increase over the last decade, with women now constituting nearly two-thirds of students. Beginning a decade ago, the University of Minnesota reported a similar shift to two-thirds women enrolled at the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Sciences. Nationally, women have now surpassed men in agricultural and natural science degrees.
Is this the start of a movement? Absolutely. Is it a good thing? Yes. We can trace the roots of this emerging trend to the demographic shifts following the 1980s farm crisis. Those difficult times forced many young people to leave the farm to find better economic opportunity. That talent depletion is now manifesting as the average age of the American farmer approaches 60. If not for women entering the farming profession, the next farming crisis might be called "Who will grow our food?"
An intriguing question for further study is why women without farming backgrounds join the profession more than their male counterparts. Preliminary clues suggest that female farmers' affinity for sustainability and community development may play a role. Farming is about renewal, hope and promise. And, if your profession is your passion, the harder you work, the greater your rewards will be. One might say this is the boots-in-the-dirt definition of the "double bottom line," where women see strong opportunity to reap both professional and personal returns.
That would certainly be the case at our farm. Together, my wife, Kim, and I own and operate the same specialty crop farm I worked with Grandma Jenny. Today, my wife is the operation's managing partner. As a former pharmaceutical executive, she brings an energetic blend of drive, focus and execution that keeps our farm on schedule and in the black.
These women are no exception. Throughout my career in agriculture, business and investing, I have had the great fortune to work alongside many strong, smart and visionary women. Their contributions to the science, technology and execution of modern-day agriculture are already yielding enormous economic and social benefits. I look forward to seeing where they lead us.
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Carl Casale is a fourth-generation farmer who has served as the CFO of Monsanto and the CEO of CHS and is currently the senior agricultural partner at an agritech venture capital firm, Ospraie Ag Science. He lives in St. Paul.