Women Shaping the Future of Agriculture

Women Shaping the Future of Agriculture_Exeleon Magazine

Agriculture is arguably the single most important industry to humankind. With our global population, expected to increase by 2 billion by the end of 2050, there won’t be an investment in any industry or sector that will make sense if we can’t feed ourselves. And yet, as we are urban sprawling ourselves out of our global food security, we are losing family farms at an alarming rate. This burgeoning population means that farmers will be required to produce 70% more food, although, according to USDA data, the number of U.S. farms is in decline. In 2020, there were 2.02 million U.S. farms in 2020, down from 2.20 million in 2007. With 10% of the world’s arable land lying within the United States, contributing $992 billion to the American economy annually, we are losing our agricultural land to development at a rate of 175 acres per hour – 3 acres per minute, according to Modern Farm.

COVID has shown us just how fragile our global food supply systems are, depending on a complex supply chain, at the mercy of logistical, labor, and operational disruptions. To strengthen and grow our agricultural industry, it is imperative that we innovate processes and integrate technology. This allows us to discard the legacy business models for farming, in favor of new programs and methods which will essentially allow us to produce more with less: more food on less farmland; more food with less environmental impact; and more food with a shorter, more transparent supply chain.

The Trio of Change

Three women who are helping to transform this traditionally male-driven industry are Larisa Miller, President & CEO of Keystone Farm Future (KFF); Jackie Behr, Head of Business Development and Marketing for R&J Dairy Consulting; and, Nicole Fansler, President of Nicole Fansler Livestock – three unconventional women, shaping the future of agriculture in an unconventional way.

Working together on a new model for beef, this powerful female trinity-of-experience is forcing the agriculture industry to re-examine the legacy business model of farming, and the important role that women will play in the resilient future of this critical industry.

While these three female powerhouses are bound by the shared commonality of having grown up on family farms, their life paths could not be more divergent. These divergences of experience and expertise, however, complement the attributes and perspective that each woman brings to the table.

“The common denominator of mankind – agnostic to race, religion, socio-economics, geographical local or ethnicity is that we all need to eat. To do that, we must be courageous enough to step away from the ‘grow and hope’ model that agriculture has operated under, almost since agriculture took root in society over 12,000 years ago. Under the traditional ‘grow and hope’ model, farmers plant their seeds or raise their livestock, hoping for a good market price when it’s time to harvest and sell.”

“Basing a business model on ‘hope’ will not work as we move into our rapidly transforming future. To have resiliency and security in our supply chains, surety of supply, and to be able to reduce the risk for everyone in the food supply chain – farmers, processors, retailers, and consumers, it is imperative that we look at ways to vertically integrate our agriculture industry,” notes Miller. And that is exactly what these three women are doing in the beef industry.

Larisa Miller

Larisa Miller, having grown up on a farm in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, started her career with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture in the Animal Health and Diagnostic Commission. Having worked around the world, spending time in the UAE as advisor and head of business development for members of the Royal Family in Abu Dhabi, and later, as CEO of a global consulting firm, Larisa admits that she is always looking at ideas and innovations in agriculture which could benefit farmers in both Pennsylvania and the USA as a whole.

Concerned about the fragility of the dairy industry, and the challenges this fragility represents to our dairy farmers, Larisa took the initial seeds of an idea to reshape the beef industry, based on the concept of securing the purchase commitment for beef before building the herd, then reverse-engineered this concept so that it would make sense for the small famers in Pennsylvania. Thus, Keystone Farm Future (KFF) was formed.

Jackie Behr

Jackie Behr, who is an integral part of her family-owned business, as well as serving as head of nutrition for Keystone Farm Future, was raised on a farm in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, moving with her family to Lancaster County when she was a young girl.

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is an area known for its rich tradition in agriculture and a large population of ‘plain people’ – Amish, Mennonites, etc. A graduate of Penn State University, Jackie is an expert in livestock nutrition, working in the family-owned business, R&J Dairy Consulting, founded by her father, Rick Sehr. R&J is an independent consulting group made up of 7 experts in the areas of nutritional research, marketing support and livestock nutrition.

As both a beef and dairy nutrition consultant, Jackie looks at nutrition as more than simply feeding the animal, she prioritizes quality of the end-product and overall sustainability, building bespoke nutritional programs which not only contribute to a better-quality dairy or meat product, but which have the potential to reduce the impacts of livestock on the environment. Passionate about working with family-owned farms, Jackie is excited about feeding beef cattle, continually researching and problem solving to make a measurable impact to farm profitability and animal health.

Nicole Fransler

With Keystone Farm Future, both Miller and Behr work to ensure that the cattle are grown to the specifications of excellence determined by the client, who ultimately owns the herd. The success of their program begins with the purchase of well-backgrounded, high-quality stocker calves, with many of these calves coming from the Nicole Fansler Livestock Company.

Nicole Fansler resides on her commercial poultry and beef cattle farm in Mathias, West Virginia with her partner, John, and their son, Jacob. Born into a farming family, poultry and beef cattle have always been a part of Fansler’s life. “I became interested in the livestock marketing aspect of agriculture while attending livestock auctions with my grandfather, when I was only a child,” notes Fansler.

“I have a deep connection to agriculture, but my focus and passion has always been on beef cattle.” Fansler formed her agricultural business of cattle buying to fill the gap between cattle farmers and the cattle feeders/finishers and is now known around the country for her exceptional-quality cattle. “Some of the finest heifers and steers I’ve ever seen come from Nicole, and I’m infinitely proud to not only have these high-quality feeder calves coming into our KFF program, but to have it be a woman-owned agricultural enterprise is an additional value-add, showing the significant contribution that women make to our modern-day agriculture industry,” mentions Miller.

Standing out in the Industry

Working to secure the supply chain for supermarkets which were heavily impacted during COVID, Keystone Farm Future works with the supermarket to identify a determined percentage of beef the supermarket requires weekly, subsequently purchasing and managing the herd to meet this need. Placing cattle on local family farms to fatten, working with small- and medium-sized meat processing plants, and structuring the operation to be compliant with both the Pennsylvania Preferred Program, a certification program for Pennsylvania’s locally produced agricultural commodities, as well as the Pennsylvania Beef Quality Assurance program, Keystone Farm Future is able to make a positive impact on Pennsylvania agriculture, supermarkets, and consumers.

“This is the era of women. And yet, in this very complex world, women are still too often underworked, undervalued, underestimated, and underpaid. Having the opportunity to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with women leaders and innovators in agriculture, like Jackie Behr and Nicole Fansler, supporting one another and setting the example for young women to follow, makes it possible for us to collectively leave an indelible mark on the agriculture industry and society, both now and for the future,” notes Miller.

Miller, Behr and Fansler are all charged with finding solutions to a very unpredictable and challenging industry. “Agriculture has always been faced with challenges. From weather related disasters to economic hardships, and yet, the American Farmer seems to always persevere. Personally, I have faced many challenges as a woman in agriculture. I feel I have overcome the challenges through hard work, at times having to work harder than my male counterparts to earn the same level of credibility, while upholding both personal integrity, as well as the integrity of quality products. I would encourage women to stand up for their ideas and follow their dreams. The greater the challenge, the bigger the reward,” remarks Fansler.

Challenges in Agriculture

A food secure future depends on governmental support for the agriculture industry, introducing resources and financial programs which will allow farmers to realize increased yield and productivity, helping to meet consumer needs. As Behr states, “The agriculture industry is often the forgotten industry. We aren’t a loud industry and that is often to our own detriment. Our elected leaders need to protect our farmers, or we will see more and more of them exit the industry. They need to provide resources and programs to protect our small farms and provide a level playing field with opportunities and fairness in the market so that small farms can be competitive and profitable.”

Behr continues, “Looking to the future, I want my kids to be able to go on the same family farms that I worked on and say, “my grandpa used to work with your dad when he sold feed” or, “my mom used to work with your dad”. But something must change, or we are going to see more and more family farms disappear.”

Passion Prevails Gender Stereotypes

The USDA recently unveiled their Census of Agriculture, which revealed that 36% of U.S. farmers are women and 56% of all farms have at least one female decision maker. Also of note, according to USDA, farms with female producers making decisions tend to be smaller than average in both acres and value of production.

Women farmers are most heavily engaged in day-to-day farm and ranch decisions, along with recordkeeping and financial management. “It is challenging to be a minority in a predominantly male-led sector of agriculture industry,” notes Fansler, “but I have always been motivated by the challenge. I feel completely confidant in my business because knowledge and integrity are powerful tools. I know the care and love the American farmer puts into their beef herds, and I feel a responsibility to the cattle farmers to promote their quality products thru my business.”

Miller, who was the architect of this new model for beef production, is proud to serve as an example for young women who aspire to enter professions which have historically been occupied by men. “It takes a great deal of courage to step into careers which are largely male-dominated, however, courage is the antivenom to regret, and no one wants to live with regret. Follow your passion without allowing gender to become your hurdle. If you choose a career pathway and you find that there is not a seat for you at the proverbial ‘table’, then pull up your own chair,” says Miller.

She goes on to urge women to “support rather than sabotage one another. When we stand shoulder to shoulder, empowering, encouraging, and uplifting one another, we are unstoppable.”

Visit KeyStone Farming Website.

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