Women in Agribusiness Are Making Important Advances

Agribusiness women flourish as the industry offers them opportunities beyond traditional gender roles.
Special Section: Focus on Women Women In Agribusiness Are Making Important Advances
In 1989, Ubly, Michigan, native Annette Puvaloski responded to a newspaper ad for a part-time secretarial position at the local co-op. At the time, there weren’t many women working in the agribusiness industry. Now, Puvaloski is the branch manager of Wilbur-Ellis Company in nearby Marlette.

“Over the years, I’ve learned different facets of the business and have had supportive managers encouraging me to progress,” she says. “I took on challenges and gained knowledge and experience. It’s gratifying to work in agriculture.”

Endless Opportunities

Since Puvaloski joined the industry, traditional gender roles have shifted, and women are more involved in management positions. In addition to the nearly 1 million female growers serving as principal or secondary operators*, more women are filling off-farm agricultural roles, including sales and agronomy positions.

Growing up on her family’s farm, Kelsey Vance, a Syngenta sales representative in Illinois, always knew she wanted to stay in agriculture. “We’re all working toward the same goal: to grow the best crop possible and feed an ever-growing population,” she says. “There are so many different roles in agriculture. We need to look beyond the stereotypical image of what a career in agriculture means.”

The opportunities aren’t limited to former farm kids, either. Melissa Neuendorf, a product lead in the technology arm of John Deere in Des Moines, Iowa, was an information technology professional who had never worked in agriculture, but she finds the industry to be rewarding and compelling.

“Working in an industry that fundamentally impacts feeding the world is exciting,” Neuendorf says. “I love looking at a problem and identifying a software solution that will help growers and agronomists improve productivity.”

Excellent Performance

Vance’s mentor, Teresa McNeal, who was first a district manager and is now the U.S. head of customer marketing for seeds at Syngenta, taught her that females in a male-dominated industry are in a unique position to leave a lasting impression.

“Just like the guys, I put on my boots in the morning and head to the field. I have great relationships with the farmers in my area, and they and my coworkers treat me as an equal.”

Kelley Washburn
“If you don’t know what you’re talking about, people will remember that,” Vance says. “But on the other hand, we have an opportunity to share our insight, and that gives us a chance to shine. I may have to work harder, but I can also make a positive impact.”

Kelley Washburn, a crop consultant and the only female sales representative with Crop Production Services (CPS) in its Midsouth Region, knows the importance of a strong first impression.

“Just like the guys, I put on my boots in the morning and head to the field,” says Washburn, who lives in Kennett, Missouri. “I have great relationships with the farmers in my area, and they and my coworkers treat me as an equal.”

Washburn’s can-do attitude is paying off. During her 8-year career with CPS, she helped start the location in Bernie, Missouri, which has grown into one of the four largest retailers in the area. She’s also been part of the Dream Team, made up of the top 10 CPS salespeople in the region.

A Tough Balancing Act

Despite the advancements of women in agriculture, balancing work and family is still tough. “In a male-dominated industry, if a man is committed to his career and puts in long hours of work, he earns the respect of his peers,” Puvaloski says. “But if a woman with a family were to work the same hours, she may be perceived as a bad mom. Even today, the expectations are that a woman’s primary role is to take care of her family.”

Washburn has also felt this pressure. “It’s not an 8-to-5 job,” she says. “Growers call day and night, so you do miss out on a few things in family life. But on the other hand, to us, farmers are family, not customers.”

Finding the right balance is not the same for everyone, Pavaloski notes. “Between your work life and your personal life, you have to find your own balance,” she says. “In agriculture, it’s common to dedicate long hours for weeks at a time. It’s important to prioritize and devote quality time to your family and your career—and to do each without feeling guilty.”

Diverse Workforce

Many ag companies are emphasizing the importance of a diverse workforce, which includes women. For example, Syngenta is committed to maintaining a workforce that reflects the diversity of its customers and the communities it serves. In fact, Syngenta launched a Global Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) policy in 2014.

A growing number of women are seizing new opportunities in agribusiness. #WomenInAg @SyngentaUS

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McNeal, one of the first female district managers at Syngenta, is a D&I champion. She meets monthly with other champions from across the company to look for ways to accelerate diversity and inclusion.

“It’s not just about diversity in hiring, but diversity of thought,” McNeal says. “One of my primary roles as a D&I champion is to help identify ways to bring groups together to advance employee enthusiasm, professional development and community engagement. In my 18-plus years with the company, I’ve never been prouder to work for Syngenta.”

Puvaloski notes that Wilbur-Ellis has a group specifically for women, called the Women of Wilbur or WOW. It meets several times per year and offers participants support and advice.

“Any time you can bring multiple perspectives to an industry, you’re going to find advantages,” Neuendorf says. “Whether those perspectives result from differences in gender, age or cultural backgrounds, the result is going to be more ideas and better solutions.”

*According to the USDA 2012 Census of Agriculture