Women in Agriculture at ABAC

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Like many academic fields, the field of agriculture has a long history of barring women from practicing. The first woman to get a degree in agriculture was Irene Lowe in 1913 at the University of Melbourne. Since then, women in the 21st century have come a long way. There are more women majoring in agriculture than ever at ABAC, but it was not always that way.

Prof. Lorie Felton graduated from Auburn University with a bachelor’s degree in ornamental horticulture and then got her master’s in plant pathology in 1982. Prof. Felton immediately began teaching at ABAC and taught for 4 years before the agriculture industry in Georgia hit a recession. Because there were not many students majoring in agriculture at the time, her teaching contract was not renewed.

From there she returned to Alabama and owned and operated her own plant nursery, went back to school, and taught biology at a local junior college. When two positions came open at ABAC again, she and her husband re-joined the ABAC team, and she became the assistant professor of horticulture again.

Felton says that she wanted to become a professor because she liked applied science more than theoretical science and because she wanted to model after a great professor she had, Dr. Harry Ponder at Auburn. Growing up during the “Environmental Movement of the 70’s”, a period where people became aware of the effects negative agricultural practices had on the planet, she fell in love with horticulture.

Because she started teaching at 27, she says she had to overcome not being much older than her students and prove that she knew what she was doing in a male dominant industry. Furthermore, she had to learn how to brush off the dismissive comments of her co-workers. Prof. Felton says it was also a struggle to dress professional yet feminine because in the 70’s and 80’s they did not make professional work clothes for women. Finally, she had to learn how to deal with the isolation she felt working with mostly men. At the time, there were only three female professors in the School of Agriculture. At lunch, the men would play cards or basketball and neither she nor the other two female professors got an invitation.

She recalls one time where her supervisor gave her and the other female professors a free lunch for secretary’s day, despite none of them being secretaries. And despite this, they ate anyway, because it was a free lunch. Prof. Felton says being a woman in a male-dominated field was quite difficult but after five years, “you tend to build a reputation and I guess mine was good.”

Her philosophy with teaching was to work alongside her students and focus on student-centered teaching. She taught nine to ten different classes a year, some of which were Herbaceous Plants, Woody Plant Identification, Landscape Design, Greenhouse Management, Nursery Management, Commercial Turf Management, Floral Design, Plant Science, and Urban Tree Maintenance.

After a lengthy teaching career, she served as interim department head for two years. She did not like it because it was more people management and administrative work. After that she became internship coordinator for the school of agriculture and visited interns across many different states to assess their progress and make connections with industry leaders.

Over the years Prof. Felton says the biggest change that she is noticed in ABAC’s agriculture program is an increase in the student’s academic preparedness when ABAC switched from being a 2-year program to a 4-year program. She also says there is a lot more female students in agriculture programs now.

Prof. Felton taught part-time last spring because she was in touch with some students that needed a certain class but there was no one to teach it, but now she says she is officially retired.

Just starting their professional teaching careers are agriculture professors Ms. Britta Thinguldstad and Dr. Taylor Hendricks. These two professors were in grad school together, both co-advised by Dr. Tucker at UGA. 

Ms. Thinguldstad is a professor of animal science. She says that she did not grow up in agriculture but was introduced to horse riding by her cousin when she was young and developed an interest in working with animals. Ms. Thinguldstad thought she had to be a vet to pursue a career working with animals, but when she started college at UGA she was guided into meat science and nutrition by her professors Dr. Pringle and Dr. Stelzleni. Then Thinguldstad started working at a beef operation as an undergraduate. After she moved on to her master’s, she was influenced by her co-advisor Dr. Segers who encouraged her to teach.

Working in the industry as a beef cattle manager (after getting her master’s) she says there were people that told her she didn’t belong there because she was a woman. She goes on to say that she feels like it’s all about your attitude, and “you just have to decide not to listen.” Thinguldstad says she takes that kind of thing as a challenge and not as a negative.

Because she started in the middle of the 2020 spring semester, she says that she’s had to teach differently every semester, starting in person, then going online, and then switching to hybrid classes. Despite these challenges, Ms. Thinguldstad loves teaching and working with the students.

Her demeanor towards students is outgoing and friendly and she tries to make the work as interactive as possible. As a professor she tries to vary the way she teaches to reach as many people as possible, switching from powerpoints to whiteboard notes and from games like Jeopardy to whiteboard review days.

Starting slightly earlier than Ms. Thinguldstad was Dr. Hendricks in January 2020. She is a professor of Agronomy, the science of soil and how it interacts in a system with water, plants, and the environment. Dr. Hendricks grew up in Maryland, and always thought she would work with water and water resources. However, during an internship, she heard repeatedly that “our farmers aren’t taking care of the land the way they should” from people not in agriculture, and it was hard for her to hear because she was interacting with those producers and she felt that wasn’t true. Wanting to advocate for farmers, she attended Wesley College for her undergraduate, had several internships working with water and soil health, and got her bachelor’s in environmental science. While at Wesley she stayed with a friend that was part of a small beef operation, and she started helping around the farm. Hendricks fell in love with it. She passed up an opportunity to study hydrology and took an opportunity to study soil science in pasture settings at UGA. When she was getting her master’s in crop and soil science, Dennis Handcock, her co-advisor, encouraged her to get a Ph.D. in animal and dairy science.  Her focus was on forage production and management.

As a professor, she teaches soils and fertilizers, and soil management. She likes teaching soils and fertilizers because she gets to work with new students, and she likes teaching soil management because she has students working in production ag. that might not realize why they’re doing what they’re doing, and she gets to teach them that “why”.

When asked about hardships she faced because she’s a woman in agriculture, she says that anytime you are not the stereotypical person in a role, there can always be some bias. She feels like sometimes you have to prove that you know what you’re talking about, but if you do it usually comes through. According to Dr. Hendricks, there have been isolated incidents, but getting into grad school she found both male and female mentors that were really wonderful and wonderful female colleagues.

“Traditionally there has always been this idea that there’s this mean girls stereotype that women don’t work well with each other or that we’re kind of put in competition with each other… I think that overall it’s definitely changing. I think you do see less of those stereotypes of “oh, she’s a female” and more and more of that camaraderie, and yes, there are some people that play into that stereotype and don’t get along, but for the most part, I think it’s more and more common to see females in this industry form networks and relationships because they realize that if we’re working together and collaborating together it gives us so much more strength.”

In the classroom, she tries to be as interactive as possible, especially during the labs. She says she also “voluntells” her students to participate. For example, if she knows that a student does cotton production, she’ll ask them to share their experience with the class.

Many say the future of agriculture is evolving and Leila Baxter is doing her best to prove it. Leila Baxter is from Kingsland, GA and she is a senior studying ag studies at ABAC. Starting in Ag Education when her high school teacher Mrs. Chester became a mentor for her and pushed her towards becoming an agriculture teacher. Baxter developed a passion for agriculture working in the greenhouse in high school and volunteering at the Jacksonville Zoo. She has a state degree at FFA, meaning she has more than 300 volunteer hours.

She says that any hardships she faced as a woman in agriculture have not been in ag. education, which is female-dominated. Instead, when working with young farmers while doing FFA programs, it’s been hard to deal with the pressure of proving that she is knowledgeable about agriculture.

Her favorite part of ag studies is how it allows you to learn about many different aspects of Agriculture. Baxter had the option to go to UGA, Fort Valley, or ABAC. At the time ABAC did not have the degree she wanted, but Mrs. Chester convinced her to attend because the college was working on getting their ag education program certified. When she came to ABAC in 2016, Felton was her advisor.

She reports that the best part of her college experience has been working for the newspaper, where she wrote about the opioid epidemic for farmers, and the seed plant swap, and the GMA, before eventually becoming the editor-in-chief.

In the future, Baxter hopes to work in extension with UGA and 4-H, or start an agriculture program in Albany, GA.

As time goes on, more and more women join the field of agriculture. According to the Pacific Standard, “Female producers now make up 36 percent of farmers, a 27 percent increase from 2012.” Closing this gender gap, however slowly, is good for women and good for the world. The Food and Agriculture Organization states that, “Closing the gender gap in agriculture would generate significant gains for the agriculture sector and for society. If women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 percent.”

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