Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Women in ag conference inspires current, future leaders

Kathy Davis

Washington farmer Susan Ujcic 
bunches kale at Helsing 
Junction Farms in Rochester. 
A room full of women, all involved in some aspect of agriculture, can create a powerful sense of support and encouragement. A regional network of hundreds of such women connected simultaneously by technology generates mighty momentum. 

Participants across five states and three time zones gathered in 40 different locations to take part in this year’s Women in Agriculture Conference on Saturday, Nov. 18. This annual event connects women in ag throughout the Northwest with on-site networking and activities, as well as streamed speaker presentations. 

WSDA hosted the Olympia site in our headquarters, the Natural Resources Building. Occupations and interests of the 28 attendees ranged from small farms, farm/forest operations, and gardening to a seed company. Staff from WSDA Organics Program, Thurston County Conservation District, Olympia Farmers Market, Employment Security Department, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Washington’s Dairy Ambassador were also in attendance. 

This was the sixth annual Women in Agriculture Conference, sponsored by Washington State University (WSU) Extension. As with previous events, it was a day packed with learning, connecting and empowerment. 

The 2017 conference theme was “We Can Do It” and focused on building leadership among women in the industry. Topics echoed by the featured speakers, the local panelists and those in the room hit upon:

  • How to support each other.
  • Being a mentor and being mentored.
  • Getting involved in your broader community; volunteering.
  • Being an advocate.
  • Understanding your natural strengths and where to improve.

Speakers inspire
Alexis Taylor, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, talked about her upbringing on an Iowa farm that had been in her family for 180 years. From doing chores as a kid, she went on to serve in the Army and work at USDA in Washington D.C. She was promoted to lead a USDA program with 14,000 employees, and offices across the U.S. and the world. 
Conference attendees at the Olympia site, engaged with event activities. 

“I knew I didn’t want to be a farmer, but didn’t know then I could have such an incredible career in agriculture,” she said, adding that her career has taken her to more than 30 countries. 

Anne Schwartz, the other keynote speaker, owns and runs Blue Heron Farm in Skagit County and has also long been involved in agricultural advocacy. 

Schwartz encouraged conference attendees to learn about their local community groups, joining, volunteering, becoming a board member, or engaging in any way that feels right to them. 

“Leave your farm a little more than you may be comfortable with,” she said.

Olympia site
In Olympia, we had the benefit of a diverse and powerful panel of local leaders in agriculture:

  • Ava Arvest, founder of MycoUprrhizal, an Olympia-based mushroom business
  • Mary Dimatteo, executive director of the Olympia Farmer’s Market
  • Rachael Taylor-Tuller, farmer/owner of Lost Peacock Creamery

The panel members answered questions posed by the site facilitator, Christina Harlow from the USDA regional National Agricultural Statistics Service office. 

Among their many insights, all three panelists agreed that it’s often difficult for women to demand their worth. “If you don’t put a price tag on what you do, others don’t value what you do,” Arvest said. 
The Olympia site attendees pose for a group photo. 

If you missed this year’s conference but are interested in future conferences, you can visit www.womeninag.wsu.edu to sign up for notifications before next year.