Sarah Hovinga

Many Roads to Agriculture

Many of us working in the diverse areas of agriculture, be it research, field, supply chain, etc., have found a meaningful career in different ways. In my “Banana Babble” or “The bugs we depend on” blogs, I’ve shared with you why I love what I do and I give you a perspective on how interesting the field of agriculture can be. However, it always fascinates me to hear the stories of others in the agricultural industry too and to learn about their roles and how they got to where they are in contributing to the amazing infrastructure we’ve built for ourselves based on food.

Recently, I was able to chat with a friend and colleague of mine, Shannon Douglass, whom I met in a fellowship program through the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation. Shannon is another passionate woman in ag with an interesting story to tell. For me, it’s important to share the specifics of one’s career path because it gives tremendous insight into how one’s actions and involvement can lead to a rewarding career, and Shannon’s story provides a nice opportunity to do just that.

Shannon got into agriculture by happy accident. Her family had a couple of acres and she pushed to get into 4-H. Her great experience with 4-H led Shannon to attend high school out of her district so that she could be a part of the FFA program there. She later went off to college to study agriculture, loved it and stuck with it. Some of the many reasons she chooses to work in this industry are that she loves the ability to spend time outside, engage with the people, and that the work in ag is never boring. She currently serves as the 1st Vice President of the California Farm Bureau, a position she was elected to in December, 2017. And if you ask her she will respond “I take great pride in the work I get to do for Farm Bureau”.

Sarah Hovinga, Senior Scientist, Biologics Project and Product Support, Disease Management, Bayer Division Crop Science
Sarah Hovinga, Senior Scientist, Biologics Project and Product Support, Disease Management, Bayer Division Crop Science
Sarah Hovinga,
Senior Scientist, Biologics Project and Product Support, Disease Management, Bayer Division Crop Science

She first got involved in Farm Bureau in college. While being engaged in Butte County’s Young Farmers & Ranchers (YF&R), the county battled a local measure that would have banned GMOs. This would have limited crops farmers could grow and, due to the way the measure was written, would have eliminated the use of a particular variety of rice, which was commonly grown in the area. She ended up getting involved as a campaign volunteer, walked precincts talking to voters, helped with educational events, and even did some surprise media interviews. In the end, the Bureau position won and they kept the ability to grow GMOs. This gave Shannon the realization of how important it is to engage on local issues, tell the story, and how the individual involvement of people could make a difference. Farm Bureau members were very involved in the GMO issue and even after this campaign, Shannon continued working alongside the organization. After college, she settled in with her husband in Glenn County, California. They participated in the group that got the YF&R program going locally and they continued to stay involved over the years. Shannon found that Farm Bureau always had opportunities for her to get involved, learn, and network. As someone who didn’t grow up in agriculture, that has been tremendously valuable.

Together with her husband, she began farming. Since her husband was experienced with dairy, they started with raising dairy heifers, and then added beef cattle. As they have grown over the years, they expanded to more row cropping. Today, they farm silage corn to supply dairies and hay, grow pumpkins for the farmers market, and grow parent seed for several seed companies. They sell some of their beef direct to customers who buy through their website.

Shannon’s story also includes working for the local Ag College for a few years and to promote ag career pathways for a non-profit organization. After Shannon had her son, she realized she really wanted something with flexibility to be able to spend as much time as possible with him while also having the ability to work on the farm during the day. This lead to teaching college ag classes part time and doing some contract recruiting work where she would help fill ag roles. The recruiting business kept growing and eventually she joined forces with a colleague to create CalAgJobs. Currently, they provide job promotion and full recruitment services to companies large and small who want to find the most talented people to fill their ag positions.

Reflecting on the opportunities in agriculture for young people who are still discerning a career path she would definitely advise to always consider agriculture. Nationally, there are 2 jobs for every person graduating college with an ag degree. In California, there are over 4 jobs for every graduate with a plant science-related degree. Even while still in college and before graduation, students can get involved in ag clubs, they can join Farm Bureau, and get engaged with the YF&R. These programs offer opportunities to learn and travel and are a great way to explore potential future career paths. She also comments that “Ag is a very interconnected industry and relationships matter, so foster them.”

Through the years, Shannon has seen how the number of women in agriculture is growing too. While ag is a traditionally male-dominated field, in the U.S. women make up about 30% of farm owners these days. Additionally, one of the things she has really appreciated is how family friendly this industry is.

Even though life for Shannon is quite busy, she always has fun and seems to find time to enjoy life. When I asked her how she does it, she simply answered: “Ha! Thankfully I really love my work and farming.” She added that “Our life is crazy but we do as much as we can as a family. We mix fun into travel whenever we can - visiting aquariums or theme parks when we are near them. But we also make life on the farm fun. I do silly things on social media like using a cardboard cut-out of “The Rock” to measure crop growth over the season for our social media followers. But when we do get off the farm, and aren’t at a Farm Bureau event, we are probably cheering on our son at a swim meet.”

As Shannon thinks about the future, she sees some serious challenges in California ag as farmers battle tremendous regulation; but she is ready for the task because regardless of the area one works in in ag, you know that to every problem there is a solution that has a scientific and moral grounding. For her, keeping this at the forefront of thought will help us live better lives and pass this land onto our children in better shape than how we found it.

For me, hearing Shannon’s ag story is inspirational and at the same time offers some very practical advice to current and future agriculturalists for how concrete actions, involvement, and passion can lead to a fulfilling career and a constructive contribution to one of the most important fields around: agriculture.

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