For Kelsey Henderson, agriculture has been a central part of her family’s life for generations. Growing up on her family farm in southeast Wisconsin, near Kenosha, farming was a way of life, and she also showed livestock. She helped start an FFA chapter at her school, and that experience helped grow her interest in a career in the broad and varied agriculture industry.
“That sparked, ‘Yes, I want to go into ag, I want to go to an ag school,’” she says.
Henderson is now a junior at Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, majoring in ag business. A university livestock show drew her to the school.
“I came to Iowa State for the cattle show and fell in love with the campus,” she says.
Across the farm country of the Midwest, women play a major role at universities’ ag colleges, including a majority of the ag college student enrollment at Iowa State, the University of Missouri and the University of Illinois.
MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources is about 54% female; Iowa State’s CALS is 58% female; and the University of Illinois’ College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Studies is about 55% female.
Within those ag colleges, some majors see significantly higher female majorities, including animal science and ag education.
Henderson sees this trend at her school, where she is involved in a number of activities, including as a student ambassador for the ag school and working for its career services department.
“The passion is definitely there,” she says. “I think women in agriculture have continue to be on the rise. I think it’s definitely exciting how many young women want to go into agriculture.”
Carmen Bain is the associate dean for academic innovation at Iowa State’s CALS. She says the ISU ag college saw a female majority in 2015, and that trend has been due to a variety of factors.
“It’s a confluence of different trends,” she says.
Part of it is the national trend that more women are going to college and getting degrees. Bain says female university enrollment has been increasing since the 1980s as women have seen college degrees as a way to advance career prospects, even more so than men.
“Historically access to higher paying jobs has required a four-year degree for women, to a greater degree than men,” Bain says.
She says agriculture is attractive to those degree seekers, men and women; an industry where they can tackle some of the key challenges facing society.
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“It’s a place where people feel like they can make a difference,” Bain says.
MU’s ag school has had a slight female majority for the last decade, Bryan Garton says. Garton serves as the senior associate dean and director of academic programs at MU’s CAFNR, and he adds that a wide variety of fields of study are included in CAFNR. He says some majors are more heavily tilted to one gender. For example, MU’s animal science program is currently about 85% female students.
“It’s always been in the 80s,” Garton says. “A lot of young women want to go to vet school.”
Ag education is another major that has a large majority of female students at MU, Iowa State and Illinois. MU’s ag education program is 78% female students. Garton has been at MU for 30 years, and he says it has been interesting to see the shift from Missouri having almost all male ag teachers when he began to now having more balance, in addition to the current crop of students trending female.
“They see more role models and female ag teachers,” Garton says. “…There’s also been a little culture change.”
Bain says efforts by the industry and leadership to promote the contributions of women in the ag industry helps get future generations of women interested in careers in ag.
“We have seen more intentional efforts by different leaders in agriculture to help women see the ag sector as a place they belong, where they are wanted,” Bain says. “This is an area where they can make a difference.”
Brianna Gregg, assistant dean for academic affairs at Illinois, says efforts to get more women involved in the ag industry have helped more female college students see ag fields of study as an option. Gregg says Illinois’ Women Changing the Face of Agriculture conference has helped a lot of female students learn about opportunities in the industry. She says it is nice to see both male and female students in the different fields of study.
“I think having gender diversity in our classroom is important,” Gregg says.
She says Illinois’ ACES has its own recruitment program to help students determine early on if they are interested in a career in agriculture, with its broad range of options.
“There’s lots of ways we can help students find their passion,” Gregg says.
Henderson says for all students, agriculture seems to be a field with many job opportunities, and chances to do something exciting.
“There are opportunities and jobs waiting for us,” she says. “We just have to do the hard work to get there.”
She has enjoyed her decision to attend Iowa State’s ag school, and she says being involved has given her a richer experience. Henderson is involved as a student ambassador, in the Sigma Alpha ag sorority, in the ag business club and with the Block and Bridle organization, helping organize the livestock show that helped her decide to come to ISU.
“I’ve absolutely loved every part of it,” Henderson says. “I like to take every opportunity I can. You’re only going to be in college for a few years.”
She says the people have been the best part, getting to know fellow students, roommates and professors.
“It’s amazing,” Henderson says. “I have flat out loved my college experience.”