The X Factor

October 28, 2011 10:48 AM
The X Factor

Girls rule on this Oregon combine crew

An unexpected evening rain shower sent Nick Bowers racing to the field to tarp a partial load of white clover seed. He needn’t have bothered. His combine crew had the situation covered—literally. The two women who man his combines had the foresight to tuck the seed in for the night.

"I have the best crew in the world," says Bowers, who grows annual ryegrass and other seeds for cover crops near Harrisburg, Ore. "These girls have learned this job inside and out and have good instincts and judgment."

MiKayla Sims, 18, and Kaley Ferrill, 20, simply nod. Don’t let their funky sunglasses and fetching smiles fool you. These two can calibrate a combine to harvest a variety of crops, and they service the machines as well.

The two Oregon girls are a good example of how females are cutting a wider swath across the ag landscape. The summers they have spent combining have provided them with the means to attend college and an empowering experience they will carry with them throughout their life.

Females now account for about 50% of the enrollment in ag universities across the U.S. At the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, females make up 56% of the total enrollment, says Jennifer Neef, director of career services. Curriculum makes a difference, though—80% of the animal science students are women, while only 10% of the agriculture and biological sciences (formerly known as ag engineering) students are female. At Purdue University, women make up nearly 51% of the agricultural enrollment, including 28% of those in ag engineering and biological studies.

Groups such as Illinois AgriWomen hope to encourage more women to seek positions in highly technical jobs that rely on science, technology, engineering and math, referred to as STEM jobs.
The National Science Foundation 2010 Science and Engineering Indicators show a 200% increase in the need for STEM bachelor degrees in the workforce by 2015. A 5 million–person gap between retirees and entering workers, mostly in high-tech jobs, is developing as baby boomers retire.

"We want to encourage more young women to be trained to fill this gap," says Penny Lauritzen, a farm financial strategist and past president of Illinois AgriWomen. The organization is planning a March 2012 conference aimed at recruiting high school–age women into STEM majors. (Visit for details.)

"We want to introduce young women to women with current ag careers and offer mentors," Lauritzen says. "We will all benefit by opening doors to these women as they pursue nontraditional positions alongside their male counterparts."

The female perspective at work is nothing new for Bowers. His wife, Donna, oversees the farm finances and drives trucks. His daughter, Dana, is also part of the combine crew when not at college. "I love that I can discuss crop conditions, prices and the mechanical aspects of the farm," Dana says. "I also gained a work ethic that employers appreciate."

Bowers says that women tend to be more meticulous and don’t push the limits. Neither Sims nor Ferrill grew up on a farm, but Bowers knew their families and their work ethic. They are still weighing their career options, with teaching and nursing as high possibilities.

"The confidence Nick has in me has given me confidence," Sims says. "This job on the farm has made me realize I can tackle any job and do it by myself." 

Exec Women in AgJoin Women Ag Executives

This winter, Top Producer will present its first-ever Executive Women in Agriculture seminar, designed to provide business information to women farm owners and managers and empower the growing number of female farm decision makers. Get more information on the
Dec. 1–2 Chicago event.

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