Krysta Harden: Diversifying Agriculture’s Workforce

March 31, 2016

Editor’s Note: Farm Policy Facts is proud to publish a guest editorial from Krysta Harden, the former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). During her time at USDA, she worked tirelessly to expand opportunities for agricultural producers. She founded USDA’s Women in Agriculture Mentoring Network to help inspire and support women across all areas of agriculture. We applaud one of the great champions of America’s farmers and ranchers and are pleased to share her perspective on how we can grow the next generation of agricultural leaders.

As a daughter of farmers, and someone who has spent her career working on behalf of farmers, I care deeply about the future of agriculture – in the United States and around the world.

We face the daunting challenge of feeding a growing world population of 9 billion people by 2050, and one critical component will be the success of building a pipeline of talented agribusiness professionals to drive new innovation and discover new solutions to feeding the world in a sustainable manner.

During my seven years at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), I had the privilege of helping to develop the next generation of farmers. I’m proud of what we accomplished to bring forward economic opportunities that will help rural America thrive for years to come and became acutely aware of the value that could be generated as we diversify the agricultural industry.

As Deputy Secretary, it was one of my highest priorities to ensure that all farmers including women, young people, immigrants, minorities, socially disadvantaged producers, returning veterans and retirees have access to the programs and support they need.

For example, we know women make up about 50 percent of the agricultural labor force worldwide, yet they own and operate a disproportionately small number of farms in the United States. So in 2015, USDA created the Women in Agriculture Mentoring Network specifically for women in agriculture who are interested in both supporting one another and also want to help develop more women leaders who will be seated at the decision‐making table.

Through this network, we’re changing the face of agriculture by empowering women. While these women come from all walks of life, the consistent theme in all their stories is that each of them had to overcome doubters whether it be of their physical abilities or their capability to be their farm’s chief or co‐operator.

The benefits of diversifying the agriculture industry aren’t limited to any one farm. Across the globe, women are playing a critical role to address global food insecurity. I was lucky enough to visit with some amazing women farmers in Africa, Central and South America. In Ghana, I visited a local cacao farm and saw firsthand the security and opportunity that successful cocoa production can bring to rural communities. In these communities, the contributions of women to global food security could not be more apparent. Many of them spoke with me about their deep pride and passion for the land—something they share in common with farmers in the United States.

Over the next five years, we will need about 40 percent more talented people to enter the food, agriculture and related industries than the number who are graduating with specialized degrees and skills to fill these roles. Growing up the daughter of farmers, I was blessed to learn and appreciate this vast industry first hand. Not everyone has that opportunity though. We need to show agriculture as an attractive, meaningful career path if we are going to expand our talent pool.

I’m optimistic about what’s to come. As the agriculture workforce becomes more inclusive, our country will continue to be the agricultural leader that it is, while also helping to feed the world.

Krysta Harden is vice president of public policy and chief sustainability officer for DuPont. She previously was the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.