May 8, 2019

Breaking the Stereotype: Women Who Are Defying the Odds in Agriculture

By Stephanie Metzinger

In a society where stereotypes and myths are king, tales of heroines can often be overlooked. Social norms have long dictated how women are seen in the workplace, stymying the potential for significant progress in gender equality. These perceptions perpetuate phenomena such as the “gender gap” and “glass ceiling”—the invisible barrier to professional advancement of females—and undermine the success of women.

Though gender-biased practices still exist in the job market, progress is slowly but surely being made. Even Hollywood is beginning to feature female superhero leads like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel. We are also beginning to see a similar shift in the historically male-dominated agriculture industry.

“Though I’m hearing this less and less and it’s gradually going away, there have been many times where I go into meetings and people ask me if I’m someone’s wife or daughter,” said Jackie Vazquez, director of operations at Andrew & Williamson’s Sundance Berry Farm. Instead, Vazquez is breaking all of the traditional norms tied to agriculture. She did not grow up or marry into a farming family nor did she obtain a degree in agriculture. Rather, this Salinas-native pursued a marketing degree in Chicago, and after a stint at Univision, stumbled onto a position as an assistant at Reiter Affiliated Companies.

Through hard work, curiosity and excellent mentorship, Vazquez rose through the ranks and eventually graduated from filing paperwork and serving coffee to working on budgets and handling all organic compliance affairs for the company. Nine years later, she worked her way to up to director of partner operations.

“I’m so thankful they took an interest in me even though I had a marketing background and not ag,” said Vazquez. “The reason why I do what I do and love agriculture so much is because I had a great team at Reiter that showed me what agriculture really is and why people have such a passion for this industry.”

Today, Vazquez leads the entire operations for Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce’s Watsonville district and is making waves throughout Monterey County as an advocate for social responsibility on the farm. She was part of the team that spearheaded a host of workplace initiatives that have significantly increased retention on the farm, especially among women fieldworkers. These programs include creating designated spaces in the field where new mothers can safely and privately pump; partnering with United Way to provide the children of harvesters free school supplies; launching training programs where harvesters can learn new trades such as automotive and culinary; working with food banks to provide workers with a one-month supply of food; and creating a “Closet” where farmworkers can pick up donated home goods, clothing, furniture and more.

“The slogan for our company is ‘Changing Lives, From Farm to Table.’ I didn’t want that to just be a saying we put on a box. I wanted it to be something where when I say it, I don’t feel cheesy about it because I know we are implementing initiatives that are at the forefront of changing lives,” she said.

Vazquez is among the tribe of female farmers who are demonstrating that women are, in fact, critical agents of change in the fight against hunger. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, women make up more than 40 percent of the agricultural workforce in developing countries. In the United States alone, three million acres are farmed by women, generating $12.9 billion in agricultural sales annually. While only 14 percent of the nation’s farms are run by women, these powerful “farmHers” are making changes that are reverberating throughout the industry.

For example, Loren Booth, president and owner, Booth Ranches, has grown her operation to become one of the largest and most innovative citrus farms in California’s Central Valley.

“I graduated from the California Ag Leadership Program in ’98, and from there, my interest in ag really sparked so I went to work for my dad, who at the time farmed about 2,000 acres of citrus,” said Booth, who was also heavily involved in the family’s cattle operation. After graduating from the program, she started focusing on helping her father build the citrus operation.

 “My dad was an absentee owner and didn’t have one employee,” she said. “I just thought we could do a lot better job of farming. I try to treat our employees well; an organization is only as good as its employees. Their well-being is a primary focus.”

In 2000, Booth took their entire farming operation in-house. The company dove into the packing business in 2003 when they bought their first packing house, and soon after, they brought their sales in-house. When her father passed away three years later, Booth bought out her five siblings and created what Booth Ranches is today—a fully-integrated company with farming, packing, shipping and marketing under one operation. Booth Ranches now farms 7,500 acres of citrus and markets under six labels.

“One of my favorite things about my job is watching our employees get the wind under their wings and see them fly. Our young team has really upped our technology game, and it’s really cool to be part of the evolving world of how we farm and to learn how we can use technology to do more for our industry,” she said.

Booth makes it a priority to be vocal in the community, trying to help stakeholders understand the importance of agriculture and the need for resources such as water to sustain the world’s food supply. She currently chairs the Hills Valley Irrigation District Board, serves on the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation, and is the lone female on the Friant Water Authority Board of Directors. She also previously sat on Western Growers Board of Directors and was the first woman to join the board of the Citrus Research Board.

“Sometimes in meetings, I’m the only woman in the room. I just can’t believe it because there are so many capable women in ag,” she said. “The ag industry was dominated by a strong male influence, and I feel like over the years, the opportunities have increased for many woman to step up.”

HMC Farms is a classic example of how more women are getting involved in the industry and creating a lasting footprint in agriculture. The farm is currently operated by members of the McClarty and Jensen families, half of whom are women. Chelsea McClarty-Ketelsen leads the marketing efforts, playing an integral role in helping propel her family’s farm to be a stone-fruit powerhouse. Sarah McClarty is the company’s CFO and is involved in all decisions regarding the company’s future path. Joan Jensen manages the company’s largest packing house while her daughter, Krista Carlson, is heavily involved in the accounting departments for both the packing and farming operations. The list of females in management roles does not stop with family members; key positions held by women in the company include cold storage manager, packing house manager, fresh processing operations manager and director of food safety. All are impactful players in providing consumers with delicious nectarines, plums, peaches and grapes.

Furthermore, approximately one year ago, HMC created a women’s professional development group which consists of all full time female employees throughout the organization. It was established to provide a sense of camaraderie internally as well as create a positive impact on the community through volunteer work.

“It’s incredible to see the growing number of woman becoming engaged in all areas of the ag industry,” said McClarty-Ketelsen. “As a woman, you have the unique opportunity to provide a different perspective to agriculture; whether it is through farming, marketing, or any other segment of the business. I think the balance of ideas and variety in thoughts is something everyone benefits from, male and female alike.”

Despite the fact that most farms worldwide are still headed by men, the number of women who are leading the charge in transforming farming is growing. These heroines are breaking down the walls of social norms, shattering the glass ceiling and rising above the shards to pave a path for other women. In a time when agriculture is facing dire challenges including labor shortages, rising regulatory costs and foreign competition, women, now more than ever, play a critical role in the fight to provide our country and the world an abundant and affordable food supply.