Friday, February 25, 2011

Don't mess with these farm women

By Sara Wyant

There are a lot of things that arrive in my inbox everyday, but few made my blood boil like the Environmental Working Group’s release this week, criticizing the Common Ground effort. It seems like every time people in agriculture come up with a good idea for reaching out and building relationships with mainstream consumers, the anti-production agriculture groups come up with a dozen reasons why they are wrong.

For those of you who haven’t heard, Common Ground is a new program, initially rolling out in five states — Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, South Dakota and Nebraska. Project leaders are training female farmers to be spokespersons and to get their message out via social media, partnerships with grocery stores and media outreach efforts. Funding is provided by the National Corn Growers Association and the United Soybean Board.

The EWG release suggests that, because “big ag” no longer has effective spokespersons, they are recruiting women to make their case---even though few women are actually in leadership positions within the major commodity organizations. But if you read between the lines, this seems like an attempt to belittle the women who have signed up to work on the Common Ground project, suggesting that they are just dumb figureheads who are blindly delivering messages for their male-dominated interest groups.

Give me a break!

Anyone who knows the women involved in American Agri-Women, Women Involved in Farm Economics, or the Iowa Women in Agriculture, as I do, knows that these are strong-willed, bright and incredibly capable women. They are not figureheads for anyone. They care about their farms, their families and the environment. They are perfectly capable of saying “yes” or “no” to public relations campaigns funded by others. For EWG to even slightly suggest otherwise, is to employ the most sexist inuendo I have seen in decades.

Could there be more women in leadership for the nation’s largest commodity organizations? Yes. I agree with EWG on that point. But how do you forget to mention that there are several womens’ organizations at the state and national level that are strong and growing, absent of men in leadership? Many of them are involved in the Common Ground project.

Why? Well, perhaps it didn’t fit into the tale they were trying to tell, that somehow the
women who rule the organic organizations, are somehow more “real” and credible.

What about women who raise both organic and conventional farm products? Apparently, in the EWG world, they don’t exist either. Maybe the organization could find a few, stop trying to pit women against each other and look for their own version of “common ground.”

(In the interest of full disclosure, I spoke to the AAW annual meeting last year and I am an honorary member of WIFE, but I am not affiliated with the Common Ground project.)

Sara Wyant is the Editor of Agri-Pulse, the nation's leading farm and rural policy e-newsletter. For a four-week free trial, go to


  1. Well said! I love talking about agriculture, and feel like I have the hands on experience to be knowledgeable about my family's livelihood. However, in saying that it does not hurt at all to have some professional training so I can get my story across more effectively. For me that has been the Master's of Beef Advocacy program. I may be blonde, well dressed, and a women, but I am not a figurehead.

  2. Thanks, Sara.
    Spot on.
    Pam Johnson

  3. Thank you Sara! As a CommonGround spokeswoman, volunteering my time for the project, I truly appreciate your respect for not only the cause, but more importantly, the women willing to take the time to tell our farm-life stories. Somewhere in EWG's comments, they have missed the point terribly. As a spokeswoman involved with CommonGround, I am not out to banter about whether we should or should not have a greater number of women on commodity boards....I just want folks to understand and appreciate where our safe, nutritious and abundant food supply comes from - dedicated farmers and ranchers from all across the United States!

    Dawn Caldwell

  4. First of all, let me make clear what I’m not saying, since I’ve obviously struck a chord with those orchestrating the corn and soybean growers’ $30 million PR campaign. My goal was to highlight the glaring lack of women on national agriculture commodity boards at a time when they’re training women to be their public face. That raises the question: Why are women being singled out just for this role? Why aren’t men included in this campaign?

    I recognize that several ag organizations are led and well represented by women, but the fact is, women constitute just 1 percent (3 out of 228) of the membership of the national commodity boards, the very groups sponsoring this campaign. I believe that more women should be welcomed at all levels of these organizations, including at the top.

    I urged “farmers and non-farmers alike to question how our food is grown, not who is showcased in a public relations campaign.” Women and men alike have important messages to convey especially to non-farmers. But the puzzling response from proponents of this campaign completely misses the point – why are women being singled out to do the public relations campaigns while their male counterparts do the decision making?

    Women farmers are some of the most hard-working, well-rounded, dedicated and intelligent people in agriculture today. Among these dedicated women are some of my family members, who work long hours, planting and harvesting corn, soybeans and alfalfa and raising cattle, chickens and hogs. Some of them are making major marketing decisions and managing funds for their families’ farms. I worked on our family farm for more than 10 years and lean on that experience every day I show up to work at EWG.

    I agree that farmers’ voices need to be heard, but this should be coupled with an honest and open debate about current farming practices, federal incentives and regulations and their effect on our water, air and health – for both conventional and organic farming.

    At EWG we value transparency: transparency in farm payments to the largest and wealthiest operations and transparency in the millions spent on marketing campaigns that are too often designed to mislead consumers.

    Please, do an analysis of female representation across the entire spectrum of boards and organizations involved in “production” agriculture. Prove me wrong. I would love to see more statistics on women’s representation there since women are often working on the same farms these men represent at a national or state level.

    At the very least my hope is that by asking the tough questions, we could start an honest discussion and hopefully move toward a path that rights this gender inequality.


  5. As a CommonGround spokeswoman I thank you! I appreciate your support in their mockery of what we believe will be an extremely beneficial program to all consumers and producers!
    Morgan Kontz