Robyn Rudisill was raised on a hog farm in Oklahoma. She is no stranger to farrowing out sows, working early mornings and late nights, and being in hot and cold show barns, she told an audience at the National FFA Convention and Expo in Louisville, Kentucky, recently.
Yet, she said years ago she questioned whether she should run for state FFA president after serving as an officer. “I don’t think I’m going to run because I’m just a girl,” Rudisill told her dad.
“He quickly looked at me and said ‘I didn’t raise you to be just a girl,'” she recalled. “That stuck with me, and as I go into the agriculture industry, I have to keep that perspective. I’m not just a girl.”
Rudisill is now the director of leadership and organizational development with Tyson Foods. In that role she travels to livestock operations and slaughter facilities to conduct trainings and evaluations.
At the recent FFA National Convention, she joined a panel of other women — including the USDA Deputy Secretary, a farm partner, and an FFA adviser and farmer — at a workshop called “Women in Ag: Reshaping the Future of Agriculture.” The panelists shared their journeys to their current leadership roles, challenges they faced along the way and their expectations for future generations of ag leaders.
“There are times I’m not necessarily welcomed to be at the table and have a voice,” Rudisill told the assembled FFA members. “Because if you look at me as an object, you may not like what you see, and when I talk about growing up on a hog farm and the experiences of farming, there’s a different look that’s given then.”
Rudisill advised young women in the audience to remember they have a voice and a perspective that is vital to the agriculture industry.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN POLITICS
When USDA Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden began working on Capitol Hill after college, there were only two instrumental women developing ag policy. It was tough to even find women as mentors.
Harden said she lived and worked through barriers that were in place because of her gender. “Even to this day I still feel at times a little bit of misunderstanding of what I do as the No. 2 person at the department from folks in our industry,” she said.
With that in mind, Harden explained she talks about how women should be welcomed in leadership roles in the agriculture industry. She tries to make good on those words.
“The reason we have panels like this and the reason I devote a lot time to this,” Deputy Secretary Harden said, “I want you to have good mentors and leaders and women you can admire and emulate.”
Harden pointed out she seeks out women to hire so she can practice what she preaches.
“A lot of times women in agriculture have had to work a lot harder, quite frankly, and make tough choices and juggle a lot of things,” the deputy secretary said. “Nothing has been given to them.”
RECOGNIZING WOMEN’S PLACE
According to USDA, women operators (principal and secondary) comprise 30% of U.S. farmers. The latest census of agriculture, taken in 2012, found 7% of all farms have female principal operators, and their farms average 217 acres. That is double the number of women who were principal operators in 1982.
In addition, a recent survey of wage data by PayScale, a salary and compensation information company, found the pay gap between men and women in the farming, fishing and forestry segment reaches 10%.
“It’s not like women haven’t been involved in agriculture in the past,” Harden said during the panel discussion. “What we’re talking about is how we value it and make sure we’re recognizing your contributions.”
Harden noted that, in the past, barriers have been put up to keep women’s contributions from being recognized, and it’s time those barriers are taken down.
ADVICE FOR THE WORKPLACE
The panelists offered advice for moving into the workplace that transcends gender and helps take down barriers.
Rudisill said FFA members should take advantage of leadership development in the organization. “I totally credit my Oklahoma state officer role with teaching me how to lead effectively.”
Kassi Rowland is member and assistant director of administration for Tom Farms, a diversified grain operation based in Leesburg, Indiana.
Rowland recommended people interested in going back to their family farms should actually work somewhere else first. “You can’t work for your parents if you can’t work for someone else.”
Cassopolis, Michigan, FFA Adviser Carrie George said she learned early in her career as an ag teacher to find balance.
Finding volunteers in the community to help support the FFA chapter and ag program in the school is vital to her job.
“I could be at the school from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m.,” she said, with a rueful laugh.
However, she farms with her husband, and with responsibilities to her own children and the family farm, those hours aren’t feasible. She said she has to find balance between all of those demanding responsibilities.