Want a window on all the positive changes in agriculture? Take a look at the 14th annual Women’s Agricultural Leadership Conference

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

There were blue jackets, grandmothers, university professors, agribusiness and commodity organization representatives–many playing a double role as a farm producer along with full-time jobs off the farm–it was the 14th Women’s Agricultural Leadership Conference. Held on Wednesday, April 11 at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen, the conference drew a diverse crowd of more than a hundred women from across the state who shared a common excitement for agricultural leadership at this time of rapid change.

Roundtable discussions offered four ten-minute sessions where participants could attend one quick briefing after another, choosing from a dozen topics. MCGA Outreach & Communications Specialist Jenna Kromann and North Dakota Soybean Board Volunteer Karolyn Zurn spoke about the recently launched CommonGround initiative. Farm women volunteer at local events, grocery stores and other venues where they reach out to suburban and urban counterparts, who are the family meal planners and opinion makers when it comes to food, and start conversations about farming and food.

The morning general session panel addressed the “Changing Face of Agriculture”–the panel’s makeup demonstrated the diversity of agriculture today in Minnesota. Not only did the panel reflect different ethnic heritages among Minnesota farm women, but the panelists reflect how women lead in agriculture at every level. Pakou Hang, executive director of the Hmong American Farmers Association spoke about her work advocating for one of the state’s fastest growing minority populations (60,000+), among whom many are connected to agriculture, particularly small farms that use organic methods and market their products at farmers’ markets.

“Minnesota’s Hmong farmers have been right at the forefront of the growth in the local foods movement,” Pakou said. “There’s a growing number of people willing to pay a premium for locally-raised foods, and our organization is working to make sure that Hmong farmers are benefitting from that.”

Another fast-rising star in agricultural leadership, Sangeetha Gummadi, talked about her work for the past two years as a soil conservationist at Wright County Natural Resource Conservation Service, where she not only helps farmers develop plans to prevent soil erosion and maintain water quality, but she has begun to work on outreach with school groups and local government units, to educate the public about all the conservation happening on today’s farms. Gummadi is a graduate of University of Minnesota’s agriculture education program and served as a Minnesota State FFA officer during her high school and college career.

Proving the value of an economics degree, Betty Berning spoke about her role as senior dairy buyer for General Mills.

Berning noted that General Mills’ success has come in part through its excellence in developing partnerships with the spectrum of food processors, but she hopes that the Minnesota-based Fortune 500 company can re-establish close connections with the farm producers who raise the raw feedstocks that become such General Mills products as Yoplait yogurt or Totino’s pizza.

Kristin Weeks Duncanson brought her perspective gained not only from production on her family farm in Mapleton, but also from service in state and national commodity organizations (past president of Minnesota Soybean Growers Association) and her current position as board chairwoman of Minnesota Agri-Growth Council. She told the audience about her work recently as one of 31 advisers to the newly formed AGree Food and Ag Policy Group, an initiative from nine of the world’s leading philanthropic foundations: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation, McKnight Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Walton Family Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

“The AGree Team is working on long term sustainability in food production and the environment around the world,” said Weeks Duncanson. “Through the AGree process you get a view of some of the forces behind the changes we see in ag. By 2050 we need to feed 9 billion-plus people and there’s only so much tillable ground. We have to get better at production, while not leaving behind distressing environmental impacts…there are so many interesting opportunities and challenges ahead of us.”

Rural areas need to prepare to offer solutions for what a growing world population and a growing world middle class wants. Weeks Duncanson noted that by mid-century China will have 300 million middle class people–equivalent to nearly the entire population of the United States. Further, her work with AGree has given her insight into the desire of companies like Walmart to put actual numbers and measures to concepts of sustainability, for everything from electronics products to the milk and cheese in its grocery aisles.

She said farmers need to be aware of Walmart’s process and to contribute information and offer the farm producers’ point of view when they can, knowing that the big retail players like Walmart increasingly call the shots about how food is produced.

Rural areas will need infrastructure to take part in world growth in everything from fish farming, to microbrewing of beer, Weeks Duncanson said. Education is another area that calls for a responsive approach.

“A recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out all the jobs out there going unfilled –welders, painters, carpenters–highly skilled labor. We need to tweak training and education programs to fill those jobs,” said Weeks Duncanson.

The daylong leadership conference included breakout sessions in which the common theme was how to have an impact as a leader–one of the most popular sessions of the day was “How To Be Outrageous” in which Peg Longquist of the University of Minnesota’s Women’s Center shared her infectious message about how to gain the confidence to be leaders for positive change.

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