Stories of Women in Agriculture

One of my first memories of growing up in the cornfields of Illinois is of sinking knee deep in freshly tilled soil while wearing my Sunday clothes. I vividly remember the look of horror on my mother’s face when I arrived home stained black from head to toe.

Many of my friend’s families were farmers and I knew how important those fields were to their future, to our town’s future. When it rained they celebrated, and when it rained too much or not at all, they prayed. As a teenager, I read about Rachel Carson and every time I saw a crop duster fly overhead, I worried about what it was spraying, and how it might be changing the environment in ways I couldn’t see. That’s one of the reasons I chose to study invasive weeds, like velvet leaf, that out-compete crops, reducing yields and necessitating an abundant use of chemicals as farmers try to control them.

What I wanted seemed simple enough: to help my friends grow more food and use fewer chemicals doing it. Twenty years ago, I was the only woman walking the local corn fields looking for solutions. Now, two decades later, I work for one of the world’s largest conservation organizations and whether it’s the upper leadership ranks of a nonprofit or the cornfields of Illinois, not enough has changed when it comes to women.

That’s why I was so heartened to meet Casey Cox at her family’s farm in Georgia’s Flint River Basin. I was there to learn about the Conservancy’s collaborative efforts with the University of Georgia, IBM and Georgia farmers. Here in South Georgia, precision agriculture technology is helping farmers plant, fertilize, and irrigate more efficiently, protecting the Flint River, a critical resource that supplies that critical resource to over 10,000 farms.

Casey led our tour. At the age of 22, this daughter of a 5th generation Georgia farmer is helping her family pioneer new conservation efforts. I was so inspired by her that I wanted to share a little of our conversation. Not only because of her deep understanding of the complexities of providing food while conserving the earth that grows it, but also because she is choosing a path that she may well be one of the only women walking down.

Lisa: You went away to college to explore life outside of Georgia farming, but found yourself coming back home. What drew you back?

Casey: The defining revelation I had in college was that my family’s livelihood is intertwined with and dependent upon the land and natural resources I treasure. My unique background and perspective as the sixth generation of my family farming along the Flint River in South Georgia paved the way for new opportunities to advance conservation within our agricultural community. Engaging with the Flint River Partnership, a partnership formed by TNC, the Flint River Soil and Water Conservation District, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, opened my eyes to the next generation of agriculture, largely centered upon innovation and sustainability. I decided to return home to work for the Partnership and advocate for both agriculture and conservation. I embarked on my college career striving to find my passion and a career where I could make a difference, but I soon discovered I could make the most lasting impact in my hometown – for my family, my community and many generations to come.

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Casey Cox discussing the benefits of precision agriculture for the sustainable future of farming. ©Lisa Shipley/TNC

What is it about the precision agriculture technologies that are so important?

The changing face of our global population is driving the future of agricultural production. Maximizing yields while making the best use of resources is critical to the long-term sustainability of farming. For me, the idea of “precision agriculture” translates to the real heart of stewardship. With the technology available today, it is possible to work across the board on a national and even international scale to implement new practices that are better for the farmer and the environment. By enhancing efficiency in all agricultural operations, especially irrigation, we support the health of the Flint River and its aquatic ecosystem as well as the livelihoods of the farmers in our region who sustain our economy and food supply.

During our field visit we met an incredible group of people working on precision agriculture but I was struck by the fact that you and I were the only women present. Why can women make a difference to this cause?

I often find myself in similar situations that you and I were in that day – one of few, if any, women in the room. Women can make a difference in agriculture. We lend a new voice and a new perspective and I believe it will be vital that we work together, regardless of gender or any other factor. Farmers represent less than 2% of American society – it is critical that we connect with one another and support each other to build a secure national and global food supply. I am grateful to have personally experienced acceptance and openness among the agricultural leaders in my community, despite my youth and gender. I have been welcomed into discussions and collaborations that I never would have imagined. The encouragement I receive from these local leaders empowers me to speak up, work harder and become more involved.

If you had one piece of advice for women who care deeply about agriculture or other conservation issues, what would it be?

As a young professional, some of the most inspiring women I have met are women in conservation, many of whom work for The Nature Conservancy. The work of the Conservancy, and especially the women in agriculture who have walked before me, have pioneered a pathway for young women like me to make a lasting impact in my field. My advice would be to emphasize partnerships and collaborations – it will take all of us – men and women – to define the sustainability of the future. As women of this generation, we have a real opportunity to blaze trails in both stewardship and partnership to truly change the future.

Regardless of gender, being a farmer is a lot of hard work. My research in college gave me first-hand experience with not only the labor involved in producing the world’s food but the stress that comes with the unpredictable nature of, well, Mother Nature. With the increasing effects of climate change and an already stretched water supply, of which 70% of withdrawals are used to irrigate crops, we simply must adopt new approaches to using our valuable natural resources more efficiently. As I stood talking about the importance of her family’s decision to help pilot potential solutions, Casey held a soil moisture monitor in her hand as a crop duster flew beside us and it struck me what a precious balancing act it all is. Finding that balance between nature and people is why I work for an organization like The Nature Conservancy. I looked at Casey and I saw myself, two decades ago, staring back at me.

Whether it is working with a room full of people to continue to advance the pioneering efforts that balance the needs of people and nature, as I do now, or applying these new approaches to a living laboratory in the farm fields of Georgia, like Casey, I am confident that, as women, we will lend a new set of perspectives to the discussion and those perspectives will help us reach a positive global impact sooner.

 

Lisa Shipley is the Deputy Managing Director for The Nature Conservancy’s Global Water program. In this capacity, she provides strategic support to the Managing Director and coordinates the work of the global team with marketing, philanthropy, and policy.

 

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