Sonja Jimenez, Director of Promotion and Economics Division, Agricultural Marketing Service offers advice and support during a Flash Mentoring event at the observance of Women’s Equality Day at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington, DC, Tuesday, August 26, 2014.
Sonja Jimenez, Director of Promotion and Economics Division, Agricultural Marketing Service offers advice and support during a Flash Mentoring event at the observance of Women’s Equality Day at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington, DC, Tuesday, August 26, 2014.

Judy Olson, Donna Reifschneider, Vanessa Kummer, and Pam Johnson all share something in common— they are the women of “firsts”.

As the first female presidents of some of the major commodity organizations, these women broke new ground in agricultural leadership.  But it wasn’t easy being the only female leaders in a male dominated industry. Ask these four women to talk about their experiences and you will hear similar stories—they all hoped for a deeper network and the opportunity to learn from others. Today, they are all working to ensure that the next generation is right behind them—that they will be the “first but not last”. For them, leadership means being actively engaged with their industries and communities to ensure that women are valued and recognized as equal partners on farms, in businesses and in the board room, and that they share their experiences and expertise to support other women who hope to share their voice and leadership talents.

This past fall, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden convened a White House dialogue on women leaders in agriculture. She challenged everyone to grow the bench of women leaders. The experiences of Judy, Donna, Vanessa and Pam are key to this work. When asked to share some of their insights to mentor those who follow in their footsteps, this is what they said:

  1. You know more than you think you do. There is a place for everyone in agriculture and women are leading the way. Your voice adds an important perspective that is vital to discussions and decisions being made. You know more than you think and are more qualified than you know.
  2. Say yes to new and different opportunities. It is important to know yourself and your strengths and weaknesses. It is equally, if not more important, to take risks and seize new opportunities. Your path to leadership may change over time but each experience along the way will make you a stronger person.
  3. Look to others for guidance. At all stages of your career, it’s important to have both mentors and mentees. Share what you have learned from others. There are other women out there who are also looking to advance into leadership position, not just in agriculture, but in all fields across the globe. Use that network to grow and thrive!

Judy Olson is a fourth generation farmer and a native of Eastern Washington.  Judy served as the only woman president of the National Association of Wheat Growers in 1994. After serving on the staff of U.S. Senator Patty Murray, Judy now serves as the State Executive Director of the USDA Farm Service Agency for Washington.

Donna Reifschneider started her journey to leadership at the local level, volunteering with county pork producers.  She became the first woman president of National Pork Producers Council in 1998 and went on to serve as Administrator of the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration.

Vanessa Kummer, a soybean producer from Colfax, ND has been a board member, treasurer and past president of the North Dakota Soybean Growers Association. She served as the first North Dakotan and the first woman to chair the United Soybean Board in 2012. Vanessa now serves as the North Dakota lead farmer for Farmers Feeding the World.

Pam Johnson, a sixth generation Iowa farmer, has held many leadership positions with the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, the Iowa Corn Growers Association and served as the first woman president of the National Corn Growers Association in 2013. She continues to advocate for agriculture on the local, state, national and international level with a special focus on diversity in agriculture.

The future of agriculture is something that we all have a stake in – share your voice and experience, identify those in your industry and community who have experiences that you can learn from, and be a part of creating the future.

Looking for a mentor? Join the Women in Agriculture Mentoring Network by emailing agwomenlead@usda.gov. You can also join the conversation on Twitter using #womeninag.

There are many ways to serve your industry and your community.  For information on how to serve through one of USDA’s many boards, commissions, and advisory committees, please visit our get connected page.