Breaking the ‘grass ceiling’: East Ohio Women in Agriculture Conference draws 135

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(Scroll down to see more photos from the East Ohio Women in Agriculture Conference.)

NEW PHILADELPHIA, Ohio — After Annie’s Project — a six-week class that teaches women farm business problem solving, record keeping and decision-making skills — wrapped up at various locations in Ohio in recent years, participants often expressed the same sentiment: “Why do we have to stop meeting now?”

So OSU Extension educators built programs and created the Ohio Women in Agriculture Learning Network out of that desire. And Friday, March 27, more than 135 attended the second East Ohio Women in Agriculture Conference at the Tuscarawas branch of Kent State University.

“Mainstream, it’s still men in agriculture,” said Christine Kendle, OSU Extension family and consumer sciences educator in Tuscarawas County and conference planner. “I think women are taking a more active role in their family business, and that empowerment is really neat.”

Women are “breaking the grass ceiling,” said Jacqueline Wilkins, regional director for OSU Extension, in her welcoming remarks.

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“Over the next 20 years, 70 percent of farmland will change hands,” Wilkins said, adding women can play a major role in that transition.

Lots of interest

Last year, approximately 90 women from 23 Ohio counties and Pennsylvania attended the eastern Ohio conference. This year’s program increased that attendance and featured 12 break-out sessions related to business and finance, entrepreneurship, family and community.

Nearly 30 teens attended a track for high school students, with leadership development sessions presented by Ohio FFA state officers Sydney Snider, Caroline Miller and Megan Whalin.

Jumping in

Kristy Leindecker, co-owner of The Garden Patch Greenhouse in Coshocton County, and Joli Fichter, co-owner of Fichter Farm in western Columbiana County, which raises 73 items marketed through a Community Supported Agriculture system, shared their insight in a two-part entrepreneurship session.

They aired “if we knew then what we knew now” tips, and also emphasized the need for farm business owners to learn how to deal with never-ending stress.

“Stress is the biggest thing you have to control,” Fichter said. “Use as many people around you as you can.”

To which Leindecker jumped in, “I have to agree with you; the stress level, oh my gosh!”

“If you have a business, it’s with you 24/7.”

Fichter said she went to every Extension program she could to learn about options for ag enterprises, financial management and marketing.

“I wish I had had a mentor,” she said, adding that she operated the CSA the first year free for family and friends just to develop the system and see if she and her husband could handle it.

It’s that networking and mentoring that conference coordinators and the OSU Extension women in ag network are hoping to foster through these events.

Tomorrow’s farmers

Harrison Central High School junior Emma Cline attended last year’s conference with her older sister Amber. She came back this year with three others from her FFA chapter.

“There are many who want to take a big role in agriculture when they grow up,” she said.

“I think it makes us stronger as a whole, because we’re here,” she said, adding that the networking and new friendships are invaluable. “We’re all taking part in our own farms, and if you need a friend to call, you have someone to talk to.”

More doors opening

Keynote speaker, Atty. Kristi Kress Wilhemy, grew up on a farm in Brown County and said by the time her ag-related career got underway, “women before us had opened certain doors.”

There’s still, however, a disconnect, Wilhemy said, and men obviously dominate the field.

“It’s very important to have contacts in the industry,” she stressed. “There’s is still a good ol’ boy network in place.”

Columbiana County sheep farmer Cynthia Koonce, 75, has been around a lot of that disconnect and has been one of those to break through the “grass ceiling.”

“People don’t think of women as being farmers and entrepreneurs,” Koonce said.

Connecting with other women in agriculture at events like the March 27 conference, she added, “helps to raise your conscience, that there is something out there for me.”

 

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