FFA, 4-H Help Draw Females to Agriculture Careers

Gender barriers are disappearing for young women interested in agriculture.
Special Section: Focus on Women Iowa Public Television interviews Darcy Maulsby from her family’s Century Farm near Lake City, Iowa, for a segment of “Market to Market,” while her dog, Maggie, looks on.
Iowa Public Television interviews Darcy Maulsby from her family’s Century Farm near Lake City, Iowa, for a segment of “Market to Market,” while her dog, Maggie, looks on.
The door to previously male-dominated ag careers is wide open, and young women have stepped through. In fact, the shift to women has grown so much that the number of female students in Midwestern ag colleges is equal to or greater than the number of male students.

“There’s been more movement over the decades to make sure women have more access to careers that were male-dominated, so they now have the green light and are really encouraged to follow through,” says Marcos Fernandez, Ph.D., associate dean and director of academic programs in the College of Agriculture at Purdue University.

For both female and male ag students, the jobs outlook is strong. Fernandez says there are 57,000 annual job openings in the U.S., and 60 percent of them are filled with students graduating from ag colleges. Purdue reports an impressive 95 percent placement rate for its ag students.

Students appear to gain an edge during college and in the job market when they’re equipped with extra leadership skills honed through high school organizations like FFA and 4-H. “When these students show up on campus, you can tell the difference,” Fernandez says.

High school groups like FFA have embraced young women. Female membership in FFA grew from 26 percent in the 1992-93 academic year to 44 percent in the 2015-16 academic year. Plus, females have risen to top leadership roles; this year, young women hold five of the six national FFA offices.

A Start in FFA

Megan Moll, a seed advisor manager at Syngenta, says FFA helped put her on a path to her agricultural career. As a young girl, she loved working on her family’s farm in Michigan and joined FFA in high school. She became involved in her local chapter by holding different offices and participating in many activities, including the National FFA Convention and a leadership conference in Washington, D.C.

FFA and 4-H experiences help ignite interest in #agcareers among young women. #WomenInAg

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“I’m grateful for my FFA experience, because not only did it teach me organizational, team-building and public-speaking skills, but it also built my personal confidence to be able to talk in front of a large group of people,” Moll says. “Everything I learned from FFA has helped me become what I am today.”

Moll attended Michigan State University, where she studied agribusiness management and participated in several College of Agriculture organizations. “Being involved in campus organizations helped me develop essential skills I use in my career today,” she says. “It showed companies that I am dedicated, hardworking and passionate, which helped me gain internships.”

Moll initially took a field sales internship with Syngenta and has successfully transitioned to her current position, in which she works with 17 Golden Harvest® Seed Advisors™ in northwest Ohio.

“For my generation, the [gender] barriers were gone, and I never thought that I couldn’t do this,” she says. She remembers having many female classmates in college and now is seeing more women enter jobs like hers at Syngenta.

An Ag Teacher’s Influence

Darcy Maulsby, a frequent contributor to Thrive, started her journey toward an ag career in the late 1980s and early 1990s, before young women began embracing agriculture in larger numbers. “My generation was the product of the 1980s economic farm crisis,” she says. “The feeling I got from everybody was that there wasn’t a future in agriculture.”

During that crisis, many farmers experienced a combination of very difficult financial factors, including high debt, historically high interest rates and reduced government support.

As a young girl, Maulsby was involved with her family’s farm in Lake City, Iowa, and was active in 4-H. But she didn’t think about joining FFA until an ag teacher recruited her. Only a few girls were in FFA then, and her experiences proved to be life-changing. She remembers one horticulture competition where she had to pick up a phone and give a sales pitch to an FFA judge on the other end. “I look back and think, ‘They were really on top of it for giving us an opportunity to do that,’” she says.

“I am forever grateful to my ag teacher, Ed Ricks, who took the time to recruit me,” Maulsby continues. “FFA pushed me in new directions and really helped me grow with communication and leadership skills I have used my entire life.”

Maulsby attended Iowa State University, where she earned a degree in journalism with an ag emphasis and a degree in history. Agricultural communications is where she landed after graduation. In 2002, she started her own ag communications business and, in 2004, finished her MBA in marketing.

Today, Maulsby operates her ag writing and marketing business on the family farm, where she stays tightly connected to the farm business. She’s also very involved in Farm Bureau, Iowa Corn Growers and Iowa Soybean Association.

“Times have changed. We have more college-educated women,” she says. “There are a lot of smart women out there transforming agriculture, and it’s exciting to see that change. I definitely encourage young women to get involved in agriculture.”

“The more we see the footprint that women in agriculture can have and the opportunities that are out there, the more it becomes a consideration for women.”

Nancy Tout
Supporting Women at Work

Seeing women in diverse roles within the sector is important for young women interested in ag careers. “There is a saying, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see,’ and that is especially true for young people,” says Nancy Tout, Ph.D., head of research and development at Syngenta, Canada. “The more we see the footprint that women in agriculture can have and the opportunities that are out there, the more it becomes a consideration for women.”

Jenny Heaton, head of talent management for Syngenta in North America, says Syngenta offers Employee Resource Groups to promote women’s networking and professional development.

“We also are sponsors of the “FarmHer on RFD-TV” series, designed to change the traditionally male image in agricultural media,” Heaton adds. “It’s great work and should provide young women with more confidence that the agricultural world is ready to accept them as equal partners in this quest to feed the world.”