DENVER – I have worked in the food industry for close to 20 years, 15 of which have been in the meat industry. I have attended many industry conferences, summits and tradeshows as a representative of the publications I have worked for. Needless to say, as a woman, I am usually in the minority when attending industry functions. It’s just the nature of the meat industry — there tend to be more men working in the production companies, supplier organizations, retail and foodservice operations, and even in the industry associations. But this week, I was not in the minority. I just returned from the Women in Agribusiness Summit in Denver, where more than 750 women in the agribusiness industry gathered to network, discuss industry topics and issues and most importantly, learn from each other. It was a phenomenal experience — one that I encourage all women in the agribusiness industry to be a part of in the future.
The organizers, HighQuest Group, a global agribusiness consulting, events and media firm, put together a packed agenda for the 3-day summit. Attendees had the opportunity to hear from industry icons such as Dr. Temple Grandin — one of the most well-known women in the agriculture industry and a MEAT+POULTRY columnist — and Dr. Jacqueline Applegate, head of global vegetable, seeds and environmental science for Bayer. Breakout sessions covering a wide array of industry topics including beef and pork marketing, alternative proteins and big data in agriculture allowed attendees to learn about different aspects of the agriculture industry from guest speakers and industry experts. Attendees also got the opportunity to hear discussions on workplace subjects such as landing a board position, improving workplace culture and one of my favorite sessions, “Privilege: The ‘dirty’ word that exists in every workplace.” And, of course, there were plenty of networking opportunities during meals, receptions and morning yoga sessions.
What struck me most while attending this summit — which incidentally is in its 7th year, though this was my first year attending — was how much expertise, knowledge and talent there is in the agriculture industry from its female representatives. This isn’t anything new — these talented women have always been there taking on various roles in ag — but by holding an exclusive “women in agribusiness” conference, more women are given the chance to take center stage to show off their skills, talents and expertise in a way that may not happen as often in a typical ag industry setting. And just as important, tomorrow’s women in agribusiness — the many university students invited to attend the summit — got the chance to learn from these talented women so they can become tomorrow’s leaders of the ag industry.
Now, I’m not saying I’ve never heard women speak at ag industry events. Of course, there are plenty of presentations given by women at the meat and agriculture conferences I have attended in the past. But at this summit, every session was led by a woman; every question from the audience was asked by a woman; and every opinion and anecdote shared was by a woman. And that was something new.
At one of the closing presentations, Iowa farmer April Hemmes and pork producer Julie Maschhoff shared their unique perspectives as women in the ag industry. They shared stories about the challenges they have faced through the years while working in their businesses and offered tips on how to be a successful woman in the ag world. Maschhoff advised fellow women farmers and producers — and any women in the ag industry — to “bring something new and different to the table in your business.” If you can provide a skill or knowledge that no one else has to offer, you can be seen as invaluable to your business, she explained. Great advice. Hemmes, who runs her family farm while her husband “works in town” said successful women “have to become more comfortable dealing with conflict.” She added, “I’ve had to keep proving myself over and over again… but all I want people in ag to do is to treat us [women] as equals.”
This week in Denver, neither Hemmes nor Maschhoff — or any other of the talented women in agribusiness attending the 3-day summit — had to prove themselves. They were able to take center stage, be heard and be recognized as equals. I hope that one day there won’t be a need for a Women in Agribusiness Summit — I hope that there will be so many powerful, savvy women making impacts throughout the industry that singling them out at a special conference won’t be necessary. But until then, we can all benefit from this great event by learning from each other. Women in agribusiness: time to mark your calendars for next year’s gathering — Sept. 24-26 in Minneapolis.