Written by David Castellon
Audrey Dermond may not have grown up a tomboy, but in a lot of respects, she was raised as if she were her father’s son.
“I irrigated, I raked hay, I cultivated corn. I did all the jobs a man could do” on her family‘s farm, recounted the Turlock woman who added that she was driving a tractor by the time she was 10.
“I think he wanted to teach me a work ethic,” Dermond said of her father, noting that when he was away from home, she, her mother and her sister took over his chores on the farm.
If that seems unusual, it’s not, at least if you’re a farm family from the Valley or know such families, she said, noting that even though farming has long been considered a man’s occupation, women have a long history in helping run and sharing in the heavy work on farms.
For example, Dermond said as she attended Tuesday’s opening day of the 2017 World Ag Expo in Tulare, “Most Central Valley farms have women involved in the family business,” particularly among families with no boys.
Doris Mold agreed. Besides being a Wisconsin dairy operator, the owner of an agriculture consulting business and a University of Minnesota instructor on farming and agribusiness, she also is the president of American Agri-Women, the nation’s largest coalition of women in the agriculture field.
The notion of women taking active roles in farms and ranches as something new is plain wrong, said Mold, who has researched the role of women in farming. The truth is, “They have been the silent or unrecognized partner” through much of history, she said, noting that even in early hunter-gatherer societies, women used to raise the vegetables.
And while women on farms traditionally were responsible for tending to homes and raising children, they usually also kept the books, helped with farm labor and made goods out of farm products — butter and baked goods among them — that were sold to make money for their families, Mold said.
Still, men traditionally have been regarded as being in charge of farms, and women were long discouraged from being allowed in some ag-related career fields, she added.
Even at the farm level, “The bankers wouldn’t talk to the wives, they’d talk to the husbands,” said Pamela Sweeten of Turlock, cofounder of Women in Agriculture for Mentoring and Empowerment, which helps teens and young adults connect to schools and training programs for ag careers.
“Women have done everything on farms,” said Sweeten, who works as a marketing and sales representative for a company supplying agricultural chemicals.
But women’s involvement in farms and related fields has picked up considerably since the 1980s.
In fact, Lupita Fabregas, assistant director of 4H Club diversity and expansion for the University of California system, noted that while boys comprise the majority of California’s 4H members, they only slightly outdistance girls’ membership.
One of them is Liz Cruz, a junior at Redwood High School in Visalia who joined to get exposure to livestock, as she wants to one day be a livestock veterinarian.
“Lots of girls are interested in ag careers,” she said, adding that she hasn’t encountered anyone who tried to discourage her because she’s a girl.
And in 4H, both boys and girls are being taught that they can work in agriculture without having to pick crops or plow or do other low-skill jobs, and instead are encouraged to earn degrees in engineering, business and other majors that can be applied for farming.
“Many are going into agriculture business,” said Sweeten, noting that her niece works as an ag chemical representative.
And for women, careers on the tech or managerial side of agriculture often allows for more flexible hours than in other industries, making it easier for them to fit parenting or marriage into their lives, she said.
“You have to make your own journey, and I’m big on following your passion” said Cheryl Day, an Ag Expo visitor from Illinois who divides her time between raising her family, helping run her family farm and small cattle operation and working as an editor for National Hog Farmer magazine.
“It comes down to figuring how to make it work,” Day said, adding that she has benefited from having a husband who shares with the chores and responsibilities of raising their family and running a farm.
And in some cases, working in business fields outside the farm teaches women skills they can use if they choose to start or get back into farming, said Dermond, who works as a regional market manager for a bank and believes she will return to farming someday.