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Who’s Really Missing the Point?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Two weeks ago in this space, my colleague Sheila Karpf called out the five largest commodity crop organizations over the glaring lack of women in leadership positions on their boards. Her impetus was agribusiness’ new effort to polish its tarnished brand by enlisting women in a PR effort called CommonGround. From its web site:

Consumers aren't getting the real story about American agriculture. We're a group of farm women and we plan to change that by doing something extraordinary. Our program is called CommonGround, and it's all about starting a conversation between women who grow food and the women who buy it.

The CommonGround PR campaign is “a collaborative effort created by the National Corn Growers Association and the United Soybean Board.” Sheila picked up a whiff of hypocrisy, and she confirmed it with a quick little piece of research showing that women hold just 1 percent of the seats (3 out of 228) on the national boards of the five major commodity crops: corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat and rice.

The reaction from CommonGround and other corners of the agribiz world was as swift as it was predictable. One volunteer, Iowan Sara Ross, offered this in response to a post about Sheila’s findings that appeared on stltoday.com:

A study you found says that out of the five largest commodity groups’ boards, there are only three women. Also in your article you state that the number of farms that are being run by women has risen about 30% over the past decade and women now head 14% of the nation’s 2.2 million farms. Those statistics may be correct, but if you visit a real family farm (with 98% of all farms in America being considered family farms according to the USDA) then you will more than likely see a husband and wife team farming together.

Dawn Caldwell, another CommonGround volunteer, posted this on the agpolicyfromtheinsideout blog:

Somewhere in EWG's comments, they have missed the point terribly. As a spokeswoman involved with CommonGround, I am not out to banter about whether we should or should not have a greater number of women on commodity boards.

Dawn posted another comment on EWG’s AgMag:

I happen to be one of the 15 VOLUNTEERS participating in CommonGround. When I agreed to participate as a volunteer, never once did I consider how many men and how many women sit on any one commodity board.

And Kelsey Pope, coordinator for CommonGround Nebraska, took a wild shot at Sheila’s motivations (and her family’s) on the agonthe4front blog:

Or it's because they are from a Nebraska farm, working for the Environmental Working Group, and are jealous they didn't get picked for the role of a spokeswoman.

Pope, as it happens, works for the Nebraska Corn Board, which is funded by growers who “invest in the program at a rate of 1/4 of a cent per bushel of corn sold.” Those Nebraska corn farmers received a whopping $8.4 billion in taxpayer-funded federal subsidies from 1995-2009. During that time, conservation programs for the entire state were just 15 percent of that figure.

Believe me, Kelsey, if we at EWG are jealous of anything, it’s that we can’t steer some of that money that encourages more industrial corn production toward paying farmers to protect our water and soil instead.

But nothing trumps this comment posted on AgMag by Glen Groth, who also guest blogs for Monsanto:

Wow, what a crack team of investigators the EWG has. They dug deep by taking the ardous (sic) step of logging on to the websites of national commodity groups and counting their board members. Stunning piece of research there. *rolling eyes*

Those, like myself, in rural America and mainstream agriculture still place value on traditional gender roles whether you agree with them or not. This is reflected in the leadership of organizations representing farmers. It is a cultural difference, not some conspiracy to silence the voices of women.

Well, you’re right about two things. First, we do have a crack team of researchers who regularly unearth groundbreaking information on toxic chemicals, farm subsidies and water pollution. And second, if you asked Sheila, she’d tell you that when she first heard about CommonGround, that she was 99 percent certain that a glaring gender discrepancy existed at the board level of the big five commodity groups. Sure, confirming that was just a few mouse clicks away. Doesn’t that kinda make you wonder why nobody had else had thought to look into it?

Some posters weirdly suggested that Sheila’s post had a “sexist” overtone. I wonder how they judge recent comments made to Progressive Farmer by the leader of a major commodity organization.

Nebraska farmer and National Sorghum Producers chairman Gerald Simonsen answers questions about federal budget cutting and farm programs with a quip. "It's like talking to your wife or a state trooper," he says. "Don't volunteer anything."

How’s that for traditional gender roles?

But all of the reactions had one thing in common.

They failed to address Sheila’s central question: Why are women limited to speaking parts in public relations campaigns while the males do the decision-making?

None of the critics of Sheila’s post bothered to acknowledge another point that she made, that the leaders of all four national organic food and agriculture organizations are women: Joan Boykin at the The Organic Center, Christine Bushway at the Organic Trade Association; Maureen Wilmot at the Organic Farming Research Foundation and Peggy Miars at the Organic Materials Review Institute (Pictured above).

If you employ “crack investigative” techniques on the CommonGround web site, it’s easy to see that its backers are no fans of organic farming:

  • Organic and conventional foods have the same nutritional profiles.
  • Growth hormones used for efficient lean meat production are safe for cattle and humans
  • Organic and conventional milk contain the same nutrients.
  • Eggs from caged egg-laying systems are cleaner and safer, with lower shell bacteria levels, than eggs from free-range systems.
  • Farmers limit antibiotics given to livestock so that the meat does not contain traces beyond strict safety levels.

Obviously, this is a soft attack on the surging organic sector by conventional, chemical-dependent growers, which gives us the opportunity to take a closer look at the farms that women actually operate. According to the USDA, in 2007 there were more than 306,000 farms principally owned by women, with more than 64 million acres. Taking a closer look at these women-owned farms, we find:

  • Fewer than 30 percent receive any kind of government payments.
  • Fewer than 20 percent accept production subsidies, which total $227 million.
  • They’re more likely to take advantage of subsidies (totaling $283 million) to implement conservation programs – nearly 20 percent more than the production subsidies.
  • More than 90 percent generate annual income of less than $50,000 a year, and 80 percent. make less than 25 percent of their total income by farming.
  • Well over 90 percent are working less than 500 acres.
  • Less than 1 percent rely on feedlot management of hogs, cattle or dairy operations.
  • 5 percent raise chickens, and 5 percent raise goats and sheep.
  • 25 percent raise cattle in non-feedlot operations.
  • 25 percent raise animals other than cows, pigs, chickens, sheep and goats.
  • 1 percent of them raise melons, 2 percent raise nuts, fruit and trees and 2 percent run greenhouses.
  • Almost 60 percent of the farms are run by a single operator who is also the owner, and 20 percent have women as primary managers.

Women are making a difference in agriculture. They have often been first adopters of sustainable farming practices – organic or not – long before they went mainstream. As much as those in power at the big commodity organizations say they don’t want to “pit one sector of ag against another,” it’s important to highlight exactly where women are having a real impact – and where they’re just being used as PR window dressing.

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