Five Faces of Women in Ag
This isn’t your father’s agriculture. For those of us lucky enough to spend time on a farm or ranch, we’ve seen firsthand the huge developments in how our food is grown and raised. Twenty years ago, the internet was brand new, few of us had email addresses, and we got most of our information from a newspaper, the television or our neighbor. Today, there are new innovations in plant breeding, smarter machines that can use learnings to more precisely apply product at the right place and right time, and agricultural associations and universities that are shaping the future of ag. Meet just a few of the standout women that are changing the future of agriculture.
Jennifer Sirangelo, President and CEO of National 4-H Council
When you think of preparing the next generation of agriculture leaders to take on the challenge of feeding our growing world, naturally you think of 4-H, the nation’s largest youth development organization. And the woman at the helm is Jennifer Sirangelo.
As president and CEO of National 4-H Council, Jennifer works with the USDA and the Cooperative Extension System - a community of more than 100 land grant universities - to empower nearly six million young people across the U.S. with the skills to lead for a lifetime. More than 3,500 trained Extension 4-H professionals and more than 500,000 volunteers who serve youth in rural, urban, and suburban communities in every state provide 4-H programs in areas like health, science, civic engagement and agriculture.
Among 4-H’s many youth development programs is the “Science Matters” partnership with Bayer. Through this initiative, the partnership reaches out to more than 25,000 students across the U.S. to gain exposure to agri-science careers, help youth understand the full story of where their food comes from, and to see how science connects to multiple aspects of their lives.
“Programs like Science Matters have a direct positive impact on the future of agriculture. By teaching young people critical STEM skills and exposing them to a wide variety of agri-science career options, we empower the next generation—from rural areas to urban centers—to drive the economy, innovate and invest their energy to solve real-world issues.”
So how did Jennifer come to lead such an important organization? “My path to 4-H started when I was a girl growing up in the Midwest. My dad worked two jobs and my mom raised the four kids. We didn’t have a lot of resources, so youth development organizations like 4-H were important in my life.”
Jennifer credits a particular adult role model through 4-H who helped inspire her to become the leader she is today. “She pushed me beyond my comfort zone and helped me develop curiosity, determination and compassion for others. So, when the time came to determine my career path, I gravitated toward what I’m doing in 4-H—giving more kids what my mentors gave me – the experiences, the skills and the confidence to be a true leader.”
And that’s the advice she would give others to help encourage more women in agriculture. Become mentors. “For women in the ag industry, we need to serve as role models and take time to guide young female professionals in their career paths. Men in agriculture play an important role as champions and mentors, too. Nearly all female elected officials, CEOs and executives that I meet credit male mentors for championing their careers and providing critical support in their professional development journeys. And all of us as leaders in the agriculture industry have the power to create working environments where both women and men can thrive.”
Sara Wyant, President of Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.
If you have ever read the in-depth and insightful articles at Agri-Pulse, you wouldn’t be surprised that the woman behind the company is Sara Wyant. Sara grew up on a crop and livestock farm near Marengo, Iowa. As the youngest of four children, she knew early on that she loved to write. She describes her love of journalism as, “being able to combine my background with my love of writing.”
Sara attended Iowa State University where she received her BA in Journalism and minors in Political Science and English. She got involved in the Iowa Agriculturist and became hooked on writing about agriculture. She started Agri-Pulse in the mid-80’s and ran it until 1995. That’s when she had the opportunity to become the Vice President of Editorial at Farm Progress Companies – the first female to ever have a role at that level. She then went back to Agri-Pulse in 2005 and grew the newsletter into weekly publications, daily news alerts, blog posts, drive time type podcasts, and much more.
The reporting covers all different faucets of agriculture so she sees the breadth and depth of sustainable farming practices and new technologies as they emerge - everything from precision breeding tools that allow for more disease resistance, drought tolerance, enhanced flavor and data analytics that allow you to synthesize information and make real time decisions on the farm. Her team also looks at things like human diseases, and how food can be used to help deal with different illnesses.
With a hub in Washington D.C., Sara describes the benefits of explaining what’s going on in agriculture to those who work for members of Congress. “Our publication goes to every office on Capitol Hill. We provide much of the information they are trying to learn about. As a communicator, educating more people and lifting up some issues that don’t always make their way to their office is key.”
When asked about the biggest difference in agricultural today versus 30 years ago, she says: “Technology and access to information is the biggest difference. Back then, they didn’t have the internet. My dad was an early adopter of technology, and was one of the few people I knew who read the Wall Street Journal. He was adamant about learning. But back then, it came through the mail. Today there is so much more information available, and there are a number of benefits that technology has brought to bear.”
How to get more people in ag? Sara sees climbing enrollment at colleges, with people still coming in to agriculture. They may not go back to a traditional farm because of the economics and fewer people needed due to new technology. But, there are still many jobs in the food and agriculture sector that are off the farm.
Her advice? “If you are looking to do something that helps you grow as an individual and helps to solve some of the big issues in society – access to healthy food can be an essential part of helping to feed the world. What an opportunity to be part of that solution.”
Leticia Gonçalves, U.S. Crop Science Country Division Head
Have a conversation with Leticia Gonçalves’ and you’re likely to hear phrases like “making a difference” or “changing the world.” It’s her lifelong theme that she credits in part to bringing a big city girl from São Paulo, Brazil, into agriculture. “I’m a very value-based person and leader. What I like about agriculture and what I love about Bayer is thinking about producing more food, preserving natural resources, feeding a hungry population, Science for a Better Life… All of that resonates with me. I can attach myself to this big mission, and it has a lot of meaning for me.”
Leticia’s passion for sustainable agriculture began in 1995, just out of college, working as an intern in Monsanto’s food ingredients division in Brazil. As the company transitioned to focus fully on agriculture, she seized the opportunity to learn about the industry. Her education and experience as a chemical engineer meant that she had a steep learning curve in ag, but her methodical approach – spending six months visiting farmers in the field to become credible in agriculture – and a strong work ethic brought her up to speed.
Leticia and other key leaders in the company led a project to bring the first-ever biotechnology product, Roundup Ready soybeans, to Brazil. Laws in Brazil allow farmers to save seed, which makes it difficult for companies to recoup the value of their sizable research investment into new technologies. The model the team developed, where a farmer’s harvest was tested for the Roundup Ready trait at the grain elevator and paid for at that time, is still the system used in Brazil today.
The project caught the eye of some key Monsanto leaders, and Leticia was asked to move to Monsanto’s U.S. headquarters in St. Louis. There, her work in various commercial positions led to a role as head of U.S. Commercial Operations, and most recently, she served as President for Monsanto Europe and the Middle East. Today, Leticia serves as the U.S. Country Division Head within the Crop Science division of Bayer and is a member of the North America Commercial Operations Leadership Team. She is responsible for $8 billion net sales and a team of more than 1,300 people.
Leticia is excited about joining Bayer Crop Science Division and helping to shape the future of agriculture to benefit growers, consumers and our planet, particularly with disruptive innovation in areas such as digital transformation and gene editing. She looks forward to serving farmers and employees in her new role.
“Knowing that I’m helping people through my work, through the company I work for, it’s something that makes me feel excited every day. I’m also very passionate about helping women leaders, especially knowing that our industry still is very male-dominated, so I’m committed to helping them overcome their challenges and build self-confidence. My favorite quote, which I often share with others, is ‘It takes enlightened men and brave women to change the world.’”
Leticia offers an example from her own background: When first asked by the Monsanto Brazil Country Head to move to St. Louis, she quickly responded that she would never leave Brazil. Leticia and her husband are both Brazilian natives, and he is a lawyer by training, and Leticia didn’t feel that uprooting their lives and careers for an international assignment was in their best interest.
There were many discussions, and it was her husband who said the two- to three-year commitment might be a good opportunity and that he’d be fine to take a break from his job. So they made the move and haven’t looked back. “I now have two children that were born in the U.S., and we are making the U.S. our home base. I’m happy that we took the risk and were open-minded to come and see what could happen. In the end, it has opened a lot of new horizons for me and my family.”
She reflects: “While ag has been a male-driven industry in the past, more and more women are embracing leadership positions – whether it’s on the farm or within a company. We need to continue to be intentional and take bold actions to help encourage women to overcome barriers, build their self-confidence, and serve as mentors and role models to help build successful careers.”
Deanna Kovar, Director of Production and Precision Ag Marketing for John Deere
“Exponential changes” is how Deanna Kovar describes agriculture today versus when she grew up on a dairy farm in Kenosha, Wis. She attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she received her Bachelor of Science degree in Agricultural Business Management, combining her agriculture background with her interest in business. She first interned at John Deere in 1998 and has never looked back. During that time, Deanna has had multiple roles in the company, from a marketing representative in the far western United States, to her current role as Director of Production and Precision Ag Marketing. Today, she is at the intersection of precision equipment and technology in agriculture, working with the Deere dealer organization to provide an array of advanced new technologies to help producers farm even better and maximize their operations.
“There are exponential changes happening in agriculture. When I started full-time with John Deere in 2000, there were yield monitors and AutoTrac™ guidance. Eighteen years later, every large ag machine has a precision ag display on the armrest, and AutoTrac and documentation are standard, allowing operators to document every pass and operation in the field,” Deanna explains. “Now, even our dealers can receive alerts directly from the equipment so they can contact customers in advance of service needs, reducing customer downtime during busy periods. We have the opportunity to leverage smarter technologies, machine learning, camera vision and other innovations to help customers do a better job with each production step. Getting to be a part of that every day is mind blowing.”
One of the many exciting innovations that she works with is ExactApply™ Nozzle Control, which uses pulse-width modulation at each nozzle to make sure that the spray pattern and droplet size is more precise and effective across the full length of the spray boom. In addition, because the outside nozzles of the boom move faster on turns than the inside nozzles, the technology automatically adjusts the flow-rate of each nozzle as the sprayer crosses the field, allowing for precise application and making every droplet count. This cuts down on over and under applications of product, and helps with weed resistance.
Her advice for those looking to find a career in agriculture: “Get involved,” she says. Volunteering, engaging in club organizations and getting hands-on experience are what she credits to helping shape her career in ag.
Sandra Witte, Dean of the College of Agriculture, Fresno State
Dean Sandra Witte leads Fresno State’s Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, where enrollment has doubled in size over the last decade, now serving over 2,500 students and seven departments. She talks about her non-traditional entry into agriculture – entry through the food itself.
Dean Witte spent the earlier part of her education and career in human nutrition, with a focus on applied nutrition. She became a registered dietitian, and started out in her career working in hospitals, and using nutrition as a way to treat disease. Her patients were dealing with things like diabetes or heart disease, and her job was to find ways to control those illnesses through nutrition. She obtained degrees from Cal Poly Pomona, Fresno State, and then a Ph.D. from Oregon State University in Nutrition and Food Management. Although she had a particular focus in nutrition, agriculture was near and dear to her heart. “Agriculture was always around me growing up – it was a part of my life. I didn’t consider that I was in agriculture early on in my career. But, nutrition is about food - and where does food come from? It comes from agriculture.”
In 1992, Dean Witte began teaching at Fresno State and in 2007, became the associate Dean, and is now Dean. Some of the most exciting things she sees in agriculture are the ability to provide education and training for the new generation. Growers in California face many challenges from labor shortages to water availability. The College of Ag helps prepare students to tackle those tough issues and make a difference in sustainable and modern agriculture.
One example is a custom packing line donated to the university that allows students to see firsthand how the food that is harvested makes it way to the hands of consumers. Students can run the machinery, learn the engineering and mechanics, and how this automation can help get food more quickly from the farm to the customer, with less food loss. They also are implementing new sustainable farming techniques on the University farm like drip irrigation automation that allows the students to manage and monitor water application remotely. That type of technology allows growers more precise water application by knowing exactly when and where the crop needs it.
What is the one of the biggest challenges facing agriculture? “Ag literacy,” she says. “The whole notion of where our food comes from is critical. Humans depend on nutrients to sustain life, and nutrients come from food, and food comes from agriculture.”
The big challenge she sees is getting young people who don’t have an agricultural background to understand the industry. At Fresno State, they provide an opportunity called Ag Discovery to help young students learn about ag. “Every year, we sponsor a group of high school students at our farm over the summer. They live on campus for two weeks in an ag immersion program. They have hands on experience with food laboratories, collecting insects and visiting farmers in the region.” These opportunities and experiences are indelible for the students to give them a bigger picture of agriculture, “not just plows, cows and sows,” as she puts it.