Top of the Food Chain: How Women Are Helping Each Other Lead the Food and Farming Sector

03/09/2015 12:10 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2015

Ten years ago, when I was working at an environmental center at Harvard Medical School, I had coffee with a woman who was working for one of the large, national environmental NGOs.

The conversation turned into what a friend calls a "woe-down." We lamented that our directors were men, that the faculty or in-house experts were mostly men, and that our boards consisted largely of -- you guessed it -- men. We could both think of plenty of administrative and middle management positions filled by smart, competent women, but the examples quickly dwindled near the top of the organizations.

A scan of the data backed up this realization. The fact that men, almost without exception, led the environmental movement came somewhat as a surprise to me. I had formed the false assumption that conservation work was one area that naturally offered more equitable women leadership.
It still doesn't.

The most recent data compiled by the Chronicle of Philanthropy lists 21 of the largest charities, measured by fundraising income, that are defined as having an environmental or animal welfare mission. Of those, two organizations are led by women. If you look at 13 of the largest environmental groups by membership numbers, 10 are run by men. Board leadership of these organizations tracks about the same.

By contrast, women are at the helm of non-profit agriculture. In addition to Glynwood (the non-profit I run that helps farming thrive in New York's Hudson Valley), women run Stone Barns Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Food Tank, National Young Farmers Coalition, Just Food, Farm Aid, James Beard Foundation, Small Planet Institute, and many more food and farm-focused organizations. Michelle Obama's recent appointment of Deb Eschmeyer as Executive Director of Let's Move! and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy is symbolic of the role women play in moving food and agriculture into the spotlight.

More women are also becoming farmers. Over the past decade, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of female-run farms and women dominate the new entry farming scene.

Glynwood recently launched an agricultural business incubator, the first in the Hudson Valley and the only one in the U.S. to focus on livestock businesses. Participants are provided housing, land, mentorship and training while they get their enterprise started. Our first class of participants was chosen by a selection committee made up of agricultural experts and entrepreneurs. They chose three women-led businesses. This is consistent with apprenticeship applicants (mostly women over the past three years) and the new class of farmers in the Northeast. At a recent farm manager meeting with attendees throughout New York, the group couldn't help but notice that the women outnumbered the men three to one.

Part of the reason women may be advancing in agriculture is that this sector, especially small-scale, sustainable agriculture, is highly dependent on relationships. While the effectiveness of networks proves valuable across all sectors, it is immediately apparent in agriculture where businesses depend on a web of relationships-distributors, mechanics, vets, town supervisors, seed providers, feed suppliers, fence fixers, chefs, neighbors, customers and policy makers. In my observations, the most successfully networked producers eke out ahead of the competition.

Women are using networks to help one another succeed in this sector. A national group called Women in Food and Agriculture Network boasts a program encouraging women farmers to run for office (Plate to Politics). Another, called the Female Farmer Project, documents the "rise of women farmers" through photographs and stories. Farmer Jane, a book and website, shares stories of women farmers across the country. Ten years ago, I started a group called Pleiades to advance women leadership in sustainability, and many of the members work in food and agriculture. Several states -- both on the coasts and in the middle -- have their own version of women in agriculture networks. Recently, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Krysta Harden announced a new Women in Agriculture Mentoring Network with the social media tag #womeninag. Instead of elbowing it out over a round of golf, women are creating explicit ways to support and help each other achieve positions of influence.

International efforts are also starting to emerge. This weekend, I'm gathered in Boston with dozens of Oxfam Sisters of the Planet to commemorate International Women's Day. We'll be talking about poverty, hunger and injustice, with a particular focus on empowering women worldwide. One Oxfam program, Female Food Heroes, celebrates women leaders who are implementing change in their communities. Take, for example, Diénaba Diallo, from the West African country of Burkina Faso. Ms. Diallo owns her own dairy farm, employs six other women, and is the leader of the country's women's caucus of small-scale farmers. She recently organized a nationwide food contest for cuisine made with local ingredients. "I wanted women to be empowered and to feel fulfilled," she said in an article about her efforts.

The landscape is changing; what a welcome sight to see more women at the top of this field, working side by side.