TIGARD, Ore. — As a woman working in a field traditionally dominated by men, Kansas farmer Donnell Scott knows how challenging it can be to earn the respect of her male contemporaries.

“You do have to learn to speak their language, basically,” Scott said. “It’s not going to be easy, and you may have to go about it different ways.”

Scott, a member of Kansas Agri-Women, was part of a panel discussion featuring women who serve on state and local agricultural boards as part of the 44th annual American Agri-Women Convention on Nov. 8 in Tigard, Ore.

Oregon Women for Agriculture hosted the four-day convention for the first time since 2009, when it was held in Salem. Approximately 160 women registered for the event, which included nationally recognized speakers, workshops and tours of Oregon farms.

The Friday panel was aimed at inspiring women to apply for seats on agricultural boards, while juggling work, school and family life.

In addition to Kansas Agri-Women, Scott is the first woman to be elected as president of her local county farm bureau in Manhattan, Kan. She has also worked as a meat quality inspector and food labeling expert, alongside mostly men in packing plants from Wichita to Nebraska.

Though it can be a struggle at times in male-dominated industries, Scott said the key for women is to work openly, collaboratively and confidently in their skills.

“Really believe in yourself, that you can do it,” she said. “Just keep going forward. That’s what you need to remember.”

Karolyn Zurn, a fellow farmer and panelist from Minnesota, said she started as a mom with three kids before getting involved on the farm driving grain trucks and combines. She went back to college for sales and marketing, and realized her calling as an advocate for agriculture.

Over the years, Zurn has served with the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, Northern Crops Institute, Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom and coordinated the North Dakota Common Ground Program — facilitating conversations between farmers and consumers — for four years. She is the first vice president of government issues for American Agri-Women, and a member of the Minnesota Farm Service Agency state committee.

Zurn said her initial fear was whether she had the know-how to effectively guide the different boards. But she said she had ample support from friends and family along the way.

“I have had a lot of backing,” Zurn said. “I don’t know what I would do without the people in my life who have helped me.”

Statistics show women are taking on more leadership roles in U.S. agriculture. According to the latest USDA Census of Agriculture, the number of women who are primary farm operators rose by 200,736 between 2012 and 2017, or 69.6%.

A total of 13 women now lead state departments of agriculture, including Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Oklahoma, Hawaii, South Dakota, Maine, Missouri, Utah and Virginia. That tops the previous record of 10.

Lisa Hanson, Oregon’s deputy director of agriculture, spoke at the convention and said the future is bright for women in agriculture.

“The opportunities are endless,” Hanson said. “Agriculture is better because of your involvement.”

Oregon Women for Agriculture is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and was an original founding member of American Agri-Women in 1974. The group does advocacy and education on behalf of farms and ranches statewide.

Liz VanLeeuwen, a former Oregon state legislator from Halsey, was the organization’s first secretary when it was founded in 1969. She said its mission is critically important to bridge the urban-rural divide, and foster a better understanding of what farmers do, and how they do it.

“There is such a misunderstanding,” VanLeeuwen said. “People in the city no longer have a connection to a farm. They don’t realize how complicated (farming) is.”

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