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Conference Focuses On Fostering Connections Between Women In Agriculture

Wyoming Women in Ag

When people think of women involved in agriculture, maybe they think of them paying the bills or raising children and keeping the workers fed, but the stereotype for Wyoming women is changing.

"They're out there taking control of management decisions with their husbands. Or if they're the sole manager on their own, they're deciding what's going to be planted, when calving is going to be done, what bulls are going to be used, all of the integral decisions. Women are actively involved in that day-to-day," said Wyoming Women in Ag board member Saige Zespy. Zespy is the former manager for the weekly ag newspaper Wyoming Livestock Round-Up.

Wyoming Women in Ag, a women's agriculture group, is promoting all the ways women are now working on ranches. The group recently hosted its 26th annual conference in Casper that looks to educate its attendees and bring women in the industry together.

Zespy said that having time together as women, especially in a field like agriculture, is important because women are often isolated by their location on ranches and can be far from the closest town.

"It's not like you can walk across the street and borrow a cup of sugar, then sit and have a cup of coffee. Ranch women often have to take a lot more effort to come together. So the opportunity to all gather from across the state is really important and really fun," she said. "This conference also offers the chance to bring suburban women who have connections to ag community, like myself, with our working ranch counterparts."

The roles women have in ranching has been changing over the years, she said.

"The partnership between rancher and his wife or the farmer and his wife is more and more important. And even more often today we are seeing that women are going off on their own and running the farm or ranch by themselves. Today the idea that just because the farmer doesn't have a son or the rancher doesn't have a son doesn't mean the ranch is going to be sold. If he has a daughter, she is just as likely and just as willing to take over today," Zespy said.

According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, the number of female producers across the country on farms and ranches has been steadily growing-close to 30 percent since 2012.

In Wyoming, about two thirds of all farms and ranches have at least one woman who takes a hands on approach, especially in central and southeastern Wyoming, according to the census report.

Women still perform traditional roles like bookkeeping, child raising and homemaking. But there are opportunities for them to do more.

Lacy Nelson is a singer and songwriter. She grew up on a ranch near Ten Sleep, Wyoming. Back then, she helped her mom with tasks around the house and watched her pay bills and keep the ranch running from the inside. Now, she's in a totally different role on a ranch in South Dakota.

"I was doing a lot of the not-cowboying. Now that I'm in Sturgis, I'm doing a lot more with the cows, learning a lot more about that as far as moving them and handling them and rearranging the corrals. I've been learning a tremendous amount about cows since I've been in Sturgis," she said.

Nelson said having a role in the physical operations of the ranch is really fulfilling work. She loves the feeling of coming inside after a long day on horseback and earning her sleep, and there's always something new to learn.

She said getting together with women who share a similar life is a valuable experience.

"I feel like we're a rarity in the world. Women in agriculture, there's not a whole lot of us. And to be in a room with a bunch of them from my home state is great, it's really exciting," she said.

In addition to getting more involved in the physical operations, women are also taking the lead on changing the public's perception of ranching. According to the Farm Bureau, 95 percent of women surveyed say they are actively advocating for agriculture. Many times that's through social media.

The Farm Bureau survey also indicates a majority of women want to have a bigger leadership role in the industry, something they've found is difficult to do. That can come from fewer women in the industry believing there's a leadership opportunity for them in an ag organization, according to the Farm Bureau.

But Cindy Garretson-Weibel, the director for Wyoming LEAD, a statewide leadership group for people interested in agriculture, said she's hopeful that it's starting to change.

"They are able to show a passion for the land, the labor of love they go through. And they connect really well with other people across Wyoming and across the nation. So I really encourage women to get more involved in stepping up and becoming an advocate for this industry," she said.

Judging by some of the gains women in the industry have made in the last couple of years, things seem to be trending in that direction.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Catherine Wheeler, at cwheel11@uwyo.edu.

Catherine Wheeler comes to Wyoming from Kansas City, Missouri. She has worked at public media stations in Missouri and on the Vox podcast "Today, Explained." Catherine graduated from Fort Lewis College with a BA in English. She recently received her master in journalism from the University of Missouri. Catherine enjoys cooking, looming, reading and the outdoors.
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