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Michigan soybean farmers represent changing face of ag

They're a generation apart, but Laurie Isley and Sarah Peterson have a lot in common. Isley was part of a tiny minority of women teaching agriculture and advising an FFA chapter when she began her career in 1979. Peterson is a "dirty, in-the-cab, under-the-machine-when-it's-broken-down type of woman" farmer.

Both grew up on farms and married farmers they met in college, becoming third-generation farmers themselves. Isley and Peterson earned agriculture degrees from Michigan State University. Both have a deeply seated passion for agriculture, and both are rookie board members of the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee (MSPC).

Both Isley and Peterson have been involved with other farm organizations and the myriad volunteer opportunities in which farmers are quick to share their skills. Isley has written children's ag literacy teaching materials for Michigan Farm Bureau. In 2012, Peterson spent a year as Monsanto's Northeast Farm Mom of the Year.

They employ conservation practices as stewards of the land. And they've seen tremendous increases in farm productivity, thanks to modern technology – including biotechnology and precision agriculture made possible by the Global Positioning System (GPS) and geographic information systems (GIS). They use auto-steering, light bar guidance and yield monitors to take advantage of the latest technology.

"Our technology is providing answers," says Peterson. "Technology helps us measure what we manage. It makes our farm more efficient."

"I see it as a positive change," says Isley, but she also sees a dramatic change in the public's view of agriculture. "The increasing distrust of agriculture and misinformation about agriculture, coupled with a lack of agricultural literacy in the general public, is very frightening," she says.

Besides increased technology and productivity, another change is the number of farmers from various backgrounds who are now the main decision makers on their operations.

Women farmers are one of the most rapidly growing segments of the nation's changing agricultural landscape. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, the number of woman-operated farms more than doubled between 1982 and 2012. Add primary and secondary operators, and nearly 1 million women are farming, accounting for 30 percent of U.S. farmers. Furthermore, 14 percent of the nation's 2.1 million farms and 22 percent of its 369,332 oilseed farms had a woman principal operator in 2012. In Michigan, 7,409 women were principal operators in 2012.

Across all demographics, 22 percent of operators are new and beginning farmers, according to the most recent ag census. That means one of every five farmers is a new voice to be heard – a new source of ideas.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service, the number of minority and young farmers is also increasing, with black or African American and Hispanic farmers increasing by 12 and 21 percent, respectively, from 2007 to 2012. In the same timeframe, the number of American Indian farmers increased by 5 percent.

In Michigan, the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture shows 989 Spanish, Hispanic or Latino principal operators. American Indians were principal operators on 616 farms. Asian Americans were principal operators of 123 farms. Black or African American people were principal operators of 356 farms at the time of the 2012 census.

Alabama farmer Angela Dee, one of only four women serving on the 70-director United Soybean Board, says, "when you look at who runs our checkoff programs, you won't see a representative number of the 288,264 female principle operators counted in the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture."

The United Soybean Board has highly qualified board members who are diverse in terms of geography, age, size of operation and experience. At the same time, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the board composition is lacking in terms of directors' ethnicity and gender.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden have communicated the need for state soybean boards to reflect industry diversity by reaching out to women and minorities and encouraging them to apply for open board positions.

Harden says it's critical that board members reflect the diversity of our industry. "By growing a new and diverse set of leaders in agriculture," she says, "we will strengthen our industry and shape the future of American agriculture."

The soybean industry competes in a marketplace that is, itself, growing more diverse. "The ability to draw from a wide range of viewpoints, backgrounds, skills and experiences is important to continued success of the soybean checkoff," says Gail Frahm, executive director of the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee.

Isley, of Lenawee County, came to the board fresh from retiring after 32 years of teaching agriculture in Blissfield, where her husband Jim grew up and the family farms today. Their son Jacob helps operate the couple's Sunrise Farms, growing soybeans and corn in southeastern Michigan.

Isley's role in the farm is not unlike the role of many traditional farm women: bookwork, running for parts, driving tractor when needed and helping make farm decisions.

Peterson farms near Niles in Cass County, southwestern Michigan. She and her husband Alan farm with his parents and his brother Jeffrey, raising soybeans and corn, plus beef cattle on pasture.

Through the Farm Woman of the Year program, Peterson had opportunities to do public speaking and talking one-on-one at trade shows. "It was a good group to get involved in," she says, "because it's pretty rare to meet women who are not just farm moms," but hands-on farmers. "I love doing it, and it really fits me, but it's a rarity in our culture to find women like that."

Michigan has been a leader in women's participation on soybean checkoff boards. Frahm says that Lois Mason of Blissfield and Mary Lou Smith of Petersburg were longtime board members between the late 1990s and early 2010s. Both served both at the state and national levels. Mason and Smith told Isley what they had learned from their participation, how interesting it was to see the results of what they were producing, where it goes, soybean research and the impact of seeing the entire process. "I became very interested," Isley says, "and I could see some other areas where I could make an impact."

Both Isley and Peterson are quick to acknowledge what they've gained through participation in the board of directors. Isley gained an increased understanding of soybean production as an industry. She says she is reassured by the number of farmer-leaders, researchers and staff who are well educated, determined and work tirelessly to promote the production and use of soybeans. They're doing high-quality work to make soybeans more profitable, she says.

Peterson says she has gained a far better understanding of how Michigan soybean growers can help feed the world, as well as the numerous opportunities available in the global marketplace. "I have so many opportunities I never had before, and it's only going to make me a stronger leader in agriculture because it's going to broaden my knowledge," she says. "It's going to make me look at the problems we have on the farm in a completely different light. Not only will it help my industry, it will help my operation."

"When I come home from meetings I can't wait to tell Jim what I've learned," Isley says.

Their male counterparts seem to value the board's diversity. "I have not felt at any point that we were being undervalued because we are women," Isley says.

Peterson agrees. The most surprising aspect of the MSPC board, "by far," she says, "is the openness of the gentlemen involved." Recounting other farm group experiences, she says "the group is not always a warm one. Often it starts off feeling cold until you have a chance to share your farming knowledge and experiences and gain the group's respect." After her first MSPC meeting, the first thing she told her husband was: "They're awesome guys; they talk with you like you're just another person in ag. That was very, very encouraging to me," she remembers.

"I think diversity does matter," Isley says. "I think sometimes women have a slightly different perspective, whether it's because of their role on the farm or the fact that sometimes we relate more closely with the consumer." Often, she says, "I think men may be slightly more focused on production and a little less on promotion and marketing."

"I might put a different spin on it, but I think that's what makes the board strong," Peterson says. "We look at the same problem from a lot of angles to come up with what's best for everybody." The camaraderie on the soybean board is important to her.

"I think there are a lot of women and minorities who have a lot to offer the program," Isley says. "We need to look beyond the guys we see at the elevator. That's their frame of reference. We can invite others."

Peterson says that while serving on another board, she often saw people come and go as terms ran out. That gave her the chance to see how diversity changes organizations. "The more diverse the group," she says, "the stronger we were." She saw differences infuse groups with energy. New members bring an influx of new ideas, she says. "They think differently, and maybe challenge some things a little," she adds. "We get the best results in the limited time we have as producers coming together."

"I definitely encourage others to get on the board," Peterson says. "Involvement on the board broadens your horizons in exciting ways," she adds. "You can feel like you've made a large difference – not only for Michigan producers, but also for people in foreign countries who are learning to farm fish so they can feed their families and their country. Our time spent at the board table makes projects like that possible. We can drive the research that helps our industry."

Joining the board is "an opportunity you won't regret," says Isley. "You're going to be valued for the unique perspective you share. You'll get some unique opportunities to see and do things you wouldn't otherwise get to see or do. You'll feel like an active participant in the commodity you're producing."

What makes a good board member? Passion, open-mindedness, and commitment to show up and be prepared, the women say, so you can help guide the conversation in a constructive way.

"The way I like to interact," Isley says, is to ask questions. "I like discussion; I like to talk about things. I really like to find common ground, take diverse opinions and find solutions that meet the needs of all parties."

"Laurie comes to us with sharp skills in a business meeting," Peterson says. "I tend to hold back a little and analyze things in my head and might be a bit slower to make motions. Laurie is a sharp tack in that department, and she has a deep love for agriculture."

Peterson says she tends to be an extremely analytical person. "I'm going to be a devil's advocate. I want to watch the line items and make sure the benefit is coming back to the producer. I'm going to speak my mind. I'll talk to the other guys, then sit back and listen to what they say."

Women and minorities are not expected to be a homogenous group. "When we were asked to choose a program area specialty," Peterson says, "I chose production and Laurie chose outreach. It's very useful to have somebody on the board who is really interested in making sure we put our best foot forward and present us in a way that will advance Michigan soybeans and make a positive future for all of us."

Isley concludes, "I want to participate fully, take advantage of opportunities as they come along and share that with other people. I hope I can be a valuable asset to the board."

Serving on a soybean checkoff board:

• Enables you to influence how your checkoff assessments are invested.

• Places you in a position to influence the direction of the soybean industry.

• Enables you to greatly expand your network of farmers, leaders and influencers on a state or national level.

• Increases your knowledge of the soybean industry.

Alabama's Dee says, "U.S. agriculture needs all the passionate, smart farmers it can get, and women make up a big share of that group."

Serving on the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee provides a steppingstone for leadership opportunities in the industry on a state and national level. Michigan women and minority soybean farmers who are interested in getting involved in the soybean checkoff should call Gail Frahm at 989.652.3294, or email Further information is available by visiting and searching "MSPC Board Positions."

The Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee manages soybean checkoff funds to increase return on investment for Michigan soybean farmers while enhancing sustainable soybean production. A board of farmer leaders directs MSPC on behalf of the more than 12,000 Michigan soybean farmers.