Commentary: Why we don't need a women's building anymore
WEST FARGO—"Can you please tell me where the women's building is?"
I was standing in the Agweek booth when I was asked this question by an attendee at the 38th annual Big Iron farm show in West Fargo in mid-September.
"Well, the women's building is right here!" responded one male farmer who overheard the question. He pointed at who I presumed to be his wife or at least his farming partner. "She is half the land and half the iron."
He smiled at me, walking away. I understood the message. Women are often equal farming partners. We do not need to be in a different building only for women. Women make business, land and equipment decisions in their operations and in agribusinesses.
I am looking forward to an updated version of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Census of Agriculture. but according to 2012 numbers, there were 969,672 female farmers in the U.S., making up about 30 percent of farmers. Fourteen percent of principal farm operators were women, and of operators age 35 and younger, 4 percent were women.
Don't roll your eyes at this important topic. Embrace it. We need all kinds of kinds — women and men — to enter agriculture careers. And I don't think those careers are being developed in the women's building at a farm show.
The question of "where is the women's building?" also was posed to another female colleague in our booth. I had attended this farm show since early in my career and often with my dad. I never knew of a women's building. My dad first brought me to Big Iron and never told me about the women's program at Big Iron. Instead, he took me to the Case-IH meeting he always attends during the show. My thought was the women's program must be a thing of the past, long before my years of attending.
I learned from organizers that this year — 2018 — was the first year at Big Iron without a women's program and designated building. The women's program was ongoing for more than 30 years, and in the past, it included a brunch or lunch and style show. Then there was always a dedicated building for crafts, and people referred to it as the "women's building."
With 900 exhibitors, 70,000 attendees and a waiting list of 160 potential exhibitors at Big Iron, the decision to end the women's program was made by organizers. I was told only about 300 women attended last year, most from an older generation. Opening the space where the crafts were once held allowed more agribusiness exhibitors into the show.
The most important part of this change is not about gender to me. It's not the women's building going away from a regional farm show. It is about inclusion. During the past 30 years, the average age of the American farmer and rancher has gone up. Today, according to U.S. Labor statistics, the average age of a farmer is 58 years old. It was 50 years old when I was a kid in the 1980s. To me, it doesn't matter if you're a man or woman working in agriculture. You can have different interests and go to a craft show if you want. But at an agriculture show, I hope you're learning about new technology, equipment and tools to grow your skill set for your career and business.
As industries grow and change, so must we. Agriculture is not going back to the way it used to be. We must infuse new people — men and women — into the agriculture industry.
To the women who made the Big Iron women's program unique for 30 years: Job well done. Thank you for bringing in women who might not have otherwise attended a farm show. Thank you for raising up sons and daughters who engage in farming, ranching and agribusiness. Thank you to the Big Iron board of directors and management for recognizing this change was needed. Women and men are both decision makers in an array of different roles across agriculture. I hope in 30 years I can look back and see an increase in female farmers and a decrease in the average age of farmers. We need both for our future.