The evening air is cool and the pasture at California State University (CSU)-Chico’s organic dairy is full of lush grazing grass when Sarah Albers herds the cows to it after their last milking. The responsibilities of her part-time job are almost finished for the day, but Albers, a senior majoring in animal science with a minor in agricultural business, is reluctant to leave.
“I love the dairy. I love working with the cows,” she says. “My dream is to have my own animals, to make my own product, and to market it myself.”
Chances are, someday she will. Although agriculture is traditionally male-dominated, the fence gates that once barred women are swinging open. Currently, more than 300,000 women are the principal operators of farms in the U.S., according to the 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture. This amounts to 14% of the nation’s 2.2 million farms, almost triple the number in 1978. On college campuses, women eagerly pursue agriculture degrees that, at one time, were the domain of male students.
On few campuses is that trend more apparent than at Chico State. During the 2011 spring semester, 58% of the students enrolled in agriculture courses were women. Jennifer Ryder Fox, appointed dean of the College of Agriculture in August 2006, is the first woman to hold that position at Chico State, and the first woman in that position in the CSU system. Six female professors with PhDs teach in the department, along with several female part-time lecturers (out of 23 total faculty). In contrast, 20 years ago, in contrast, there was only one female on faculty in the College of Agriculture (Marian Baldy in plant science).
“At Chico State, we’re educating future leaders of agriculture to keep the land in production,” says Fox, emphasizing that the industry also needs highly trained individuals in the many jobs that provide a “web of support for the producers.”
What brings women into Chico State’s agriculture program to accept Dean Fox's challenge to keep agriculture thriving? What careers are they pursuing? What future do they envision for themselves in the complex industry that produces food and fiber, not only for the U.S. but for other parts of the world?
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