Women find place to discuss their roles in agriculture

While more women are turning up soil in the agriculture industry, they are unearthing a unique set of challenges.

Some are looking for new methods to cultivate and market their products a little differently than their male counterparts, while others are seeking ways to balance raising a family and running a farm. Many steer toward each other for an extra hand in navigation.

“As women are moving into what has been considered a traditionally male-dominated field, there’s also the learning curve and the acceptance factor,” said Margaret Viebrock, faculty member of the Washington State College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences and manager of the Women in Agriculture Conference, called “Power Up Your Communication, Power Up Your Farm.”

This year, the Kenai Peninsula is one of 31 sites throughout Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington to host the annual event from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday, at the Kenai River Center in Soldotna, for the first time since it was established 11 years ago. Last year more than 650 women participated.

Women like to share and compare styles and help each other out, Viebrock said. They like to learn by doing and through experience, and that is not to say men don’t also learn in those same ways, she said. Speakers will be broadcast via video to each site and group activities will be held throughout the day.

Viebrock said the conference was created to serve as a place for female farmers to share ideas and concerns, and to network with one another, as they weren’t completely comfortable attending more traditional meetings run by men. The genders just approach situations and accomplish tasks in different ways, she said.

“There is only a little research that talks about how men are more tied to what they produce and looking at the dollar value, while women take a more nurturing look at raising healthy food, and healthy animals so that people are going to eat a healthful diet,” Viebrock said.

Right now roughly 30 percent of the nation’s farmers are women, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

It was only within the last five years that female owners and operators were even encouraged to start reporting themselves and the positions they hold, Viebrock said.

While the commodities cultivated in Alaska may be particular to the region, women in the northern state are facing similar challenges to those Outside, she said.

This year’s event is aimed at teaching different styles of communication, appealing to different types of buyers and developing marketing strategies.“Marketing is always an issue, and how to get the fair price for your products,” said Meriam Karlsson, a faculty member at the University of Fairbanks School Natural Resources and Extension, and host of Friday’s Fairbanks conference.

She said she has heard local female farmers say they have to work harder to be taken seriously in the industry, and it still helps to have a male go to the bank to get a loan.

In Alaska in particular, because the growing season is so short and intensive, family care during that time of year is hard to handle, Karlsson said. It is hard for a child to understand why their parent is working long hours growing, getting food ready for the market and spending time selling product, she said.

Louise Heite, who co-owns Eagle Glade Farm LLC in Nikiski with her husband, will attend to learn about marketing and sales among her female peers. “I want to talk to get to know other women who farm,” she said.

She is relatively new to the game but has a long-term plan for her property. The couple is in the process of building the high tunnels that will cover the cleared, plowed ground behind their home. They supply some herbs and vegetables to the Flats Bistro in Kenai, and hope within three years to rely entirely on revenue their produce brings in.

Heite said she knows utilizing social media can be a big boost to a business, but doesn’t have much experience with it.

She also added she is glad to be sharing the work load with her husband, who is capable of doing more heavy lifting than herself.

She does the sowing, she said.

“I haven’t personally experienced a lot of discrimination as a female farmer, but it might be because I am too dumb to notice,” Heite said jokingly.