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Dairywomen discuss where we’ve been and where we’re heading

Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee Published on 22 November 2016
Amy Pflugsaupt, Zoey Brooks, Holynne Schroepfer and Julie Larson talk about gender gap

At the Wisconsin Ag Women’s Summit, in Madison, Wisconsin, in March, four women shared their viewpoints on what it is like to be a woman in agriculture and discussed some key issues facing farms today.

The panel included Zoey Brooks, a sixth-generation dairy and grain farmer from Waupaca, Wisconsin; Julie Larson, senior sales development for Merial Animal Health, who farms crops and dairy heifers with her husband; and Jolynne Schroepfer, field representative for Satori Cheese, who previously farmed with her family and was a high school agriculture teacher. It was moderated by Amy Pflugshaupt, anchor and reporter for NBC15 Madison, who grew up on her family’s beef farm.

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Q. How did you break into the male-dominated field of agriculture, and who was your role model?

A. BROOKS: When I left home and went to school, the last thing I was ever going to be was a farmer. I realized about halfway through I wanted to share agriculture’s story. It was then I started looking into females in a production agriculture role and really wasn’t seeing any. That intimidated me; I thought there was no way that I can go back and farm and be the sole farmer in that lead role.

It wasn’t until I met Laura Daniels (a dairy farmer from Cobb, Wisconsin) who is in that lead role on her own dairy farm. That really inspired me; I thought, “Yes, I can do this.” The more women I meet, I realize that more and more women are in those roles – and not just in the farm but also in businesses and lead roles in organizations.

I think just as important as having female role models guiding the way, it’s important to have those male role models, too, who are accepting of women in this industry and who encourage women to be in it.

I know with my own father and my grandfather that when I was growing up gender wasn’t an issue. You did what had to be done; it didn’t matter if you were a boy or a girl. In agriculture, if there’s a role that has to be done, a woman can fill it just as easily as a man. I think we’re making that trend to seeing women as more equals.

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A. LARSON: I graduated from college almost 30 years ago and never really thought of agriculture at that time as a male-dominated industry. I had role models in my life, and I knew I always wanted to go into agriculture, so I didn’t think anything about it being male-dominated – but once I got out, I found out it was. I went to so many meetings in agriculture, and I was the only woman in the room.

I think what’s important as women is it doesn’t matter male or female, it is all how you carry yourself. That image you project, that professionalism, it shouldn’t matter.

As far as role models, I had a couple of different ones I really looked to. Mary Hasheider, who was a supervisor for me at an internship at Accelerated Genetics. She was a woman in a vice president role. I really looked up to her and felt very fortunate to have her as a role model.

Also, I was a member of AWA or the Association of Women in Agriculture here at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and we had incredible alumni that helped forge the way for us going in agriculture.

Lastly, would be my father, Marvin Krull. I was out on farms in my internship and, as a young woman, I came home and I said to my dad, “Now, Dad, when a woman comes on the farm, you listen to them or you’re receptive or you respect them.” He said, “Absolutely, Julie, I have four daughters.”

A. SCHROEPFER: I applied for an internship with Julie Larson at Accelerated Genetics, so I would put her down as one of my role models, and echo the sentiment at UW – Madison with AWA.

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I didn’t realize we were in the minority until high school ag classes, and I was only one of two female ag students in my classroom. Now in today’s age and working for Satori, I am out with all of our patrons, and I have never felt as a minority or have felt less respected because of my gender.

Q. Are women the new leaders in agriculture?

A. BROOKS: I don’t know if it is so much women taking the lead completely over men. It’s not a competition between the two, but I think it’s becoming more equal. Women who have maybe been in the background of businesses or operations – they’ve always been right there beside their father, their husband, their uncle; they’re finally taking that step up and we’re hearing more from them.

I think a big thing that has to do with that is agvocacy. I think it’s more prevalent that we’re seeing women out there advocating and taking that role. They really love sharing that story and connecting with people.

A. LARSON: I think the skill sets of women are more in demand today too. I know you are the glue that keeps the family going and you are the center of the household.

Women are expert collaborators, which is huge, whether it’s on the farm in bringing everyone together but also in the private sector, cooperatives or organizations. Women also are so good at communicating. Their communication ability, being able to think on their feet. I think those skill sets that women really are experts in are very much needed today – and therefore getting recognized for that in these leadership roles.

A. SCHROEPFER: I think we have seen a change of women’s needs of being employed off the farm. It used to be that you were looked on to provide insurance, which is a huge expense – and it still continues to be a huge expense, although we see things changing.

As we have off-farm jobs, I think we are not considered full-time farm employees, so maybe those statistics may have skewed us a little bit. As we transition more into not relying on insurance from an off-the-farm job, that will help contribute to the number of women who are considered full-time farmers.

Q. How do you find balance?

A. BROOKS: I don’t have a family or kids to balance out, which makes life a little easier, but the perspective I would take is that coming back into a new role. I just returned to my family farm in June (2015), and I think this can resonate with any lady out there who stepped into a new position recently.

You go full steam ahead when you enter that new position. You are trying to earn that respect. You’re trying to show that I am here to work. I’m going to put in the time. I’m going to put in the hours. Finding that balance is tough. It’s a different spectrum than kids and family, but it’s still really difficult.

As far as balancing out life, I think of physically removing yourself from your farm. I know that if I stay too close or I’m down the road, I just gravitate back because there is always something that has to be done. I think to find balance is taking a day away. It will make you appreciate what you have at home so much more.

A. LARSON: Balance is a really hard one. Of all of the women I’ve known in my life, I don’t know if I know anybody ever has the perfect balance. You really have to find out what works for you, and knowing you and how you’re wired. I know how I’m wired, and where I try and find balance is just to chunk things out in my life.

If I have something coming up, I’m chunking it out by doing a little bit at a time. I use my computer Outlook calendars, some maybe use Google, where I’ll use the pop-up reminders on the phone and in my planner. Just being able to really manage your time, but then also having little rewards for yourself.

Every day, pick something, like maybe it’s putting perfume or having a cup of good coffee. It can be something very simple, buying a $5 rug to put at your kitchen sink. Something that you’re rewarding yourself with because you work so hard – because you truly are that glue and you deserve that too.

A. SCHROEPFER: Don’t you think you have to embrace it? It’s chaos sometimes at the Schroepfer household, but I’m OK with that. I love my crock pot, and I love being organized enough that, on Sunday, I know what’s going to happen this week.

Those smartphone calendars are something to be organized with because if you have little ones and you want them to do the swimming lessons and you want them to be in piano and in dance, it takes time and commitment.

Q. What do you do to transition the family farm?

A. BROOKS: A huge part of our farm succession planning was making sure that not only the farm – the animals, the buildings, the cows, the business itself – but the land would be passed down, and the land would not be sold off or divided up into houses or an industrial park.

We underwent a divorce in the family a few years back, and that really put everything into perspective where we need to get this transition plan happening; we need to keep that farm going. I have three sisters, and my dad is an only child. What we did was form an LLC.

From my parents’ perspective, they wanted it fair and equal, even though I was the only farming sibling. We actually divided land into four sections, and each of us four daughters own a quarter of that. The daughters actually own the land, and my dad and I have a partnership, which is a separate LLC on top of it, which is the operating LLC.

It’s a conversation that needs to happen sooner than later. You don’t want to be stuck in a situation like we were, where everything had to be really fast-forwarded and put into print right away.

On that note, too, I would say you have to have the conversation when bringing a new person on to farm through marriage. It’s something that’s uncomfortable, and it’s not something you want to talk about when you bring a new fiancé home, saying, “First, you’re going to sign this.

We may love each other now, but just in case we don’t 10, 20, 30 years from now, this needs to be signed.” It’s tough, but it’s a conversation that needs to happen. It’s for the best to keep that farm in the family. Definitely have those conversations now, get something in writing, get a great attorney to work with, and get something in place before it’s too late.

A. LARSON: Plan, plan, plan and have those conversations early on. In my marriage, my husband and I are already talking about some of this estate planning with our children and what our plans are to do. Go out and get all the free information you can. I see workshops, seminars that are available to you.

Grasp on to that; learn all you can and then go and hire an estate planner or lawyer or someone to make sure you get it legalized the way that you want it.

Have a will. Especially if you have children, who is going to be that caregiver if they are under 18? If something happens to you and your spouse, be sure that you have that on paper too.

The other thing with transitioning and trying to entice the next generation to look at the farm is: Make sure those benefits outweigh the risks. When you’re looking at debt-load, that is really important. Let them take those risks on their debt-load and decide what works for them with farms growing and expanding.

A. SCHROEPFER: I see transition from the perspective of our patrons. They milk 40 cows and have their corner in heaven. Their children are gone, and they don’t have anybody lined up that are going to come in to fill those shoes. I’ve heard more than once, “How am I going to find somebody to take over this farm?” They want it to remain viable.

In farm transition, make sure your business is viable; milking five cows is probably not a viable farm, but make sure that it is profitable for whomever does come in.

Also, make sure it is in writing, work with a good lawyer. It’s not always with the in-laws either, it can be with family struggling in things that change over time. You need to be able to go back to that document and say, “When we were not stressed, this is what we created. We want to fall back on that and feel comfortable with it.”

It’s OK to have those conversations ahead of time, and have those what-if moments. They’re not always fun, but they’re not always easy to live through either. 

Q. How do you handle generational gaps?

A. BROOKS: There are a lot of different personality tests, and you can find them online. If you have not taken one with your business partner or with family you are working with, when you leave this conference, go and take a personality test because it will help you learn how that other person thinks.

Once you learn how that person operates and thinks, you can kind of tailor your way of how you communicate and how you say things. My dad and I took a personality test at a seminar we went to a couple of months back, and we’re completely opposite personalities. We found we need to have different ways of communicating, and since then it’s been great.

It also took me a little bit to realize that older dairy farmers are stuck in their ways because that is what has worked in the past. I think we have to be respectful of that person who has built this business up, has survived through a lot, and that business is still there and it’s poised to have another person come into it.

You have to respect that some of what they are doing may be “old school,” but it has worked. On the flip side, that senior partner has to be accepting and open to the idea of a younger generation coming in because that is how you grow and that is how you better your operation.

A. LARSON: I think respect from generation to generation. For example, I’ve always been in the mind frame that I can learn so much from people in their 20s. Hopefully they can come back and learn from someone my age, too. That respect among generations is very important.

I also think on farms we need to take the opportunity to learn and understand some personality styles – how to deal with different personalities, how to deal with conflict. One of my favorite sayings is, “You can say anything you want; it’s all how you say it.”

So learning how to craft your words appropriately, and that takes training. I have taken my smartphone and showed my 86-year-old mother. Have you ever sat down and showed someone who maybe isn’t using some of these technologies, whether it is a GPS or a drone or a cell phone, show them what you’re doing and let them learn from that so they understand?

I really believe in asking questions and listening. We can learn so much by listening and learning from those different generations.

A. SCHROEPFER: I think you really have to be mindful of the other personalities that are in the picture. As a hopeful future mother-in-law, I shouldn’t feel like if it was good enough for me, it should be good enough for you.

Daughter-in-laws can have a hard enough struggle the way it is. They are the low man on the totem pole. Sometimes the dog ranks higher on the list of things than what they do. They just want to be appreciated. Sometimes what we are willing to settle for doesn’t mean that they should. Be okay with that.

Q. Are food labels beneficial to consumers, or are we creating a monster by branding everything?

A. BROOKS: I think it’s become a huge marketing scheme. It’s not about education; it’s about wanting to sell product. I think one of the biggest problems with antibiotic-free, as an example, is by stamping that on a package, they are implying that the product sitting next to it has antibiotics.

I don’t think you should be able to market something and use the slogan when all of the products – by law – are antibiotic-free. I really think there should be some serious action taken. I will say we’re in a consumer market. Our customers are consumers, and we have to give that customer what they want.

Right now, it is people want to know where their food comes from. They want it to be healthy; they want it to be wholesome and raised in a great way; and we need to deliver that. Give the consumer what they want, but I believe you should be marketing your product on its own, saying, “This is a great product; this is how it was raised.” Don’t market your product by beating down the other guy.

A. LARSON: I think we are creating confusion, which is really unfortunate because consumers are our customers here in the agricultural/food industry. We’re almost creating so much confusion that we are pitting labels against each other. We really need to work together to educate and advocate.

The good that has come out of this is that people want to be closer to the farmer. I really believe the farmer is getting the respect they so deserve. I have seen conversations in my travels where someone knows you’re a farmer and they have questions. The farmer is highly regarded and respected.

A. SCHROEPFER: In the world of Sartori, we see these labels, but one of the most striking newspaper articles I just saw was a picture of a young mom, and it said, “Meet your new boss.” That is who dictates what products are going to be sold in the stores, because they are the moms that are reading labels.

As a mom, you want to provide the best for your children; you want to know what ingredients are there. Those are all conversations that are driven by announcements like Subway stating it was not going to buy any products from animals that were treated with antibiotics.

I think the education that came out of that was priceless. I saw countless videos that came up on YouTube of “my steer, it has an abscess on its foot, and I can take care of this simply with an antibiotic. That animal is going to be fine and recuperate. It’s going to have quality of life. I’m going to treat that animal humanely, and I’m still going to deliver product to the food chain that is safe for you as a consumer.”

That education did help, and we’re going to see more of those opportunities coming on down the line. With as diverse as our food system is, there really is room for all players to come to the table, whether we produce organic milk, whether we produce A2 milk, whether we have something that is treated hormone-free. There is a market for everything, and there are so many neat ways people can be involved with agriculture and tell their stories.

On social media, there are so many positive, encouraging stories. Be involved to counteract the negative and misinformed.

Q. How do we address questions about how we are using the land?

A. BROOKS: It’s becoming more prominent that people want to know about land use because land is a commodity that once it’s gone or misused, it really can’t be productive farmland anymore. Be transparent and open up about the practices that we use and why we use them.

Let people know that there are nutrient management practices in place. Be proactive, too. We’re expanding right now and going to build a 12-month manure pit. We’re sending letters to all of our neighbors, meeting with them personally and getting ahead of that train. We’re letting them know what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and the practices that will regulate it.

A. LARSON: The manure spills that we’ve had are far and few between, but remember that other markets and segments outside of agriculture have had the same catastrophes; it’s not only agriculture.

It is unfortunate regardless of where it happened, but sometimes we need to give some friendly reminders when the farmer is getting condoned that there are other parts of the world and businesses where this also happens.

A. SCHROEPFER: I think livestock sitting in the state of Wisconsin has been a good flagship for us as far as knowing what procedures we have to preserve the environment and following those guidelines. We have roughly 12,000 dairy farms in Wisconsin, and if pollution or environmental degradation was that prevalent, we would see so much more than what we actually do with that many farms.

Q. How can we eliminate farm jargon when talking with consumers?

A. BROOKS: Human beings by nature are self-centered. They are selfish because if it doesn’t relate to me, I don’t care. They need something that they can relate to; otherwise it really doesn’t matter to them. So exactly on that note, make it relate to them, then grow from there. Get them engaged by something they understand.

A. LARSON: So many times, we can relate humans to cattle. For example, a young baby is given baby formula, and then think of a calf with milk replacer. Giving a calf their vaccines so they stay healthy and thriving compared to a baby with their vaccines is the same. If you can compare between humans and animals, I find consumers can grasp it better.

A. SCHROEPFER: As a former high school ag teacher, I would encourage you to offer your facilities for hosting Food for America and other tours. We sorely lack those resources. It’s a huge undertaking, but it is so rewarding for everybody who is involved.

Q. Have you found involvement at the local level of government to be valuable or do you stay away from that?

A. BROOKS: Make your voice heard. If you’re not at those meetings, you’re not involved and your voice doesn’t matter.

A. LARSON: My husband is on our county board, and that is a very, very challenging role. One of the reasons he’s on the county board is to keep agriculture viable. Definitely, step in, step out, and get involved in those roles, because then you have agriculture represented. We’re the minorities.

A. SCHROEPFER: There’s going to be a lot of information that comes through those types of meetings. Being involved makes you aware of what’s happening, possible legislation and possible changes in zoning that could affect your operation. It is important to be involved and educated.

Q. How can you run effective family meetings?

A. BROOKS: The most important thing when you have those family meetings is to take the family out of it. This is a business meeting. You’re not dad, you’re not sister, you’re not in-law, you’re business partners. You need to have that meeting professionally.

A lot of attorneys that we’ve talked with recommend having that meeting at a separate location, away from the farm, away from the kitchen table. Make it real. This is a business meeting. Emotions are taken out of it; whatever happened the night before, it’s gone. Have an agenda prior to that meeting. Have someone designated who will moderate the meeting and keep you on task.

A. LARSON: Maybe bring in someone that could be a neutral person and be able to lead a family discussion. Just to start with, maybe it’s your first six meetings of the year to get you off and rolling.

I think many times having someone different, like a moderator, in that setting really helps, because sometimes a family member is going to be less apt to walk out of that meeting if someone else is there too.

Going back to the personality styles, a lot of people who are working in the industry have had a lot of this training. See if some of the current people you’re doing business with will come in and do these things for you.

A. SCHROEPFER: I like having some of your consultants in on those meetings as well because that helps raise that level of professionalism.

Q. How do you respond to people who say farmers get too many subsidies?

A. BROOKS: Usually you don’t hear transparency when it comes to financials, but I think we need to show the business side of a farm. People have such an emotional connection with farming, more than any other industry.

I think that’s why ag is so much more under attack than other industries is because people are relating to it; that’s where food comes from; it’s natural. I think we need to start showing people what makes a farm operational and why those programs are out there. Show that without a lot of these programs, without subsidies, farms can’t survive. If you don’t have farms, you don’t have food.

A. LARSON: Look at all of the risks in farming. Not having that guaranteed take-home check is huge. Explain some of that, how the weather is such a key factor and milk price volatility or beef prices. That is huge, not having that guarantee and being able to plan.

Understanding what we’re doing in agriculture and the many, many moving parts and variables that make up farming.

A. SCHROEPFER: I would like to educate those to the 1930s, why those programs all started and how our government aligns itself with the need for those subsidies. We can point to other countries and how different their agriculture structure is because of how their government deals with the need for food.

It’s very integral with our government and how we have developed over the last 90 years.

Q. How do you approach the topic of a prenuptial agreement?

A. BROOKS: You can’t have you and your husband go up to a fiancée or spouse and say, “OK, you have to sign this.” Automatically that woman is going to be guarded; she’s automatically going to put up that wall. What we did with my two older sisters, who are married, is we drafted a postnuptial agreement, but we had their spouses take that to their own lawyer for a second set of eyes.

We drafted it and took care of the financial fees to make it easier on them, but we had that mandate that they had to take it to a separate attorney, an attorney of their choosing.

That attorney could give their opinion and work with them to finalize it. The spouse or fiancé has to have a voice. Otherwise they feel as if they can do nothing about it.

A. LARSON: In an ideal world, if you can be proactive and set some of this up with your children even before they start dating, that would help. You don’t know what the future holds. If I had to look back on the last 25 years of my life, there are many, many things I would have never expected would happen. You don’t know how things change, so be safe.

A. SCHROEPFER: I think it’s so important to approach it gently, but realize that it’s still a business and it has to maintain its viability. It’s the world we live in. It’s certainly not meant to be offensive, but it’s a matter of fact.

The farm is also going to provide so many things for her, the quality of life, a family relationship, the ability to bond as a group, the financial income that does come from it. There are positives, but there are some trade-offs too.  end mark

To read how this panel addressed consumer issues, such as food labeling, land use and advocacy, go to www.progressivedairy.com/waws2016

Karen Lee
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