Family farms, viable agriculture, cooperatives – and the gender lens

Kristi is the Assistant Director of the Quentin Burdick Center for Cooperatives at North Dakota State University, so she happens to serve a lot of farmers. And she’s also experienced the opportunity – and the tension – of an ag-centric career in a field strongly associated with male leadership.

It becomes clear, then, that this article will have not one, but two, key themes:

  1. The power and importance of cooperatives on behalf of rural America’s farmers and communities, and
  2. The realities and challenges of careers in agri-business and cooperatives for women, viewed through the lens of Kristi’s experience and three of her mentors.

The Power and Importance of Cooperatives

“Think about where we are as a country today. We see huge upheavals in so many areas,” observes Kristi. “This primes the pump perfectly for cooperatives to form.”

Curious, I request Please say more. From Kristi’s answers our first theme emerges.

LEVERAGING COOPERATIVE HISTORY FOR TODAY

First, she notes, “Millennials, especially, and now Gen Zs? We all crave something to believe in and we want the services we obtain to have a purpose.” I can hear Kristi’s excitement rise. “Cooperatives have been doing this from their very beginnings. They already fit here. Cooperatives across all sectors need to leverage this.”

My inner history major can immediately tell I’m going to enjoy this interview with Kristi Schweiss.

MAKING FAMILY FARMS MORE VIABLE

Second, she observes that farms are economically more viable and sustainable through cooperatives. 

She would know. Kristi’s work at North Dakota’s Burdick Center focuses on education, research and outreach to her state’s 500+ cooperatives. Most of these North Dakota cooperatives serve agricultural and farming directly (via products and services like inputs, agronomy, distribution & marketing) or indirectly (particularly financial & rural electric cooperatives).

Where did her passion and drive for cooperatives come from? I wondered.

From Kristi’s vantage, cooperatives, in short, increase the probability of farmer success. Which increases the probability of her own family’s success, and the probability of success throughout rural America.

“At one point, I asked my grandfather, a lifelong farmer, ‘Maybe I can go into agri-business one day?’” 

How did he react? I inquired. “My grandfather was discouraging me from working in anything in agriculture.”

As Kristi knows from her own family’s context, farming as a viable, inter-generational business faces significant challenges in the United States. Mid-sized farms continue to be squeezed-out. And off-farm income makes up an increasing percentage of household income for small- and mid-scale U.S. farm holders. 

MAKING RURAL AMERICA MORE VIABLE

One of Kristi’s key observations is that cooperatives more broadly improve the socio-economic realities for rural America. “Rural groceries, rural food access? Cooperatives absolutely have a role to play.” 

She continues, “There’s a huge gap in health care for rural America.” Kristi points to the work of Char Vrieze, one of Kristi’s mentors and heroes. “Char is simply amazing, pioneering new paths at the intersection of agriculture, health care and cooperatives.” She then shares, “My dad sometimes says, ‘Maybe one day you’ll be like Char.’” 

At this moment in our interview, I notice Kristi pausing a bit, becoming a bit more introspective.

AGRICULTURE, FARMING AND THE GENDER LENS

Yes, farming has its challenges. It turns out these challenges aren’t the only reason Kristi’s grandfather originally dissuaded her from farming or agri-business.

As she was pursuing her studies, she recalls, “The one person I was doing this for didn’t believe in me, because I was a woman.” The stereotype of the male farmer runs deep throughout U.S. agriculture, including within Kristi’s own family.

“I almost dropped out [of my master’s degree] after that conversation” with her grandfather, laments Kristi. She credits another mentor, and her now-boss, Frayne Olson “for talking me into staying with it.”

Kristi and I shift our conversation to what is sometimes referred to as the ‘gender lens,’ looking at farming, agri-business and cooperation through the lens of the individual and collective experience of women.

“People still have a hard time understanding that young women, including women who didn’t grow up on a farm, can be passionate and informed about agri-business, especially when it comes to agricultural cooperatives.” By way of one striking example, Kristi notes, “I go to agricultural conferences where a common question is, ‘Where is your husband?’”

She continues about agri-business, “I’ve been kicking at the gate, saying let me in.” She’s positively thrilled to be a leader at the Burdick Center, knowing that she’s now very much ‘in,’ serving farmers, agri-business and the broader cooperative community. 

Hence, if you ask Kristi if she sees signs of progress for women in agriculture and cooperatives, her answer is ‘of course.’ Her own career path, crafted with her mentor (and now boss) Frayne Olson, is an example. She recognizes, “Yes, I have to prove myself” within agri-business. “But, on the other,” she emphasizes to the broader agri-business community, “you have to give me a chance to prove myself.”

Kristi’s reflections about breaking long-held stereotypes in agriculture make me think about the ground-breaking marketing campaign Land O’ Lakes launched about women in ag a few years ago. If you haven’t watched Maggie Rose rockin’ She-I-O yet, and you’re in Ag and Farming circles… where have you been?!? I digress. Check it; dig it.

Circling back to Kristi’s career, I ask her What’s your grandfather’s perspective now?

“Fast forward to today, my grandfather thinks I’m doing excellent work,” she says with obvious, well-earned pride. “But he still sometimes thinks I should work for a bank,” she lets out with a chuckle. “Not for a center that serves farmers and Ag cooperatives.”

THREE HEROES MODELING THREE POSSIBLE PATHS

“Keri, Courtney and Char give me hope, in three different ways,” remarks Kristi. “They’ve broken through.”

She continues, “When I look at Keri, at Courtney, at Char, I see them as trail-blazers. These amazing women serving cooperatives, serving farmers each in their own way.”

At this point in the interview, as we shift our discussion from cooperatives to the gender lens, Kristi’s voice comes across as a perfectly audible smile as she describes them and their impact on her life.

In case you don’t know the three amazing women Kristi’s referring to: 

PATH 1: DR. SCHWEISS?

“Keri Jacobs? She’s a doctor in economics. Yet she writes in a way that everyone can understand, then apply in their – my! – professional context.”

Kristi observes that, for many generations, virtually all of the tenured faculty in agriculture and applied economics were men. “Now when pursuing a Ph.D. in economics crosses my mind? I see Keri Jacobs.” 

Kristi celebrates the many men in applied economics and agriculture who have assisted her on her academic path, particularly lifting up people like Greg McKeeMike Boland and, she highlights, “especially Frayne Olson,” while she pursued and received her masters degree in economics. Indeed, throughout our interview, she speaks positively about many men.

“But Dr. Keri Jacobs?” says Kristi, sounding, just maybe, a bit star-struck. “She shows me that there’s a Ph.D. path for me.” Path one for women in agriculture at the intersection of the academy? Check!

PATH 2: EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR SCHWEISS?

“I also look to Courtney,” says Kristi. Why Courtney in particular? I ask.

“Courtney convenes academics, farmers and more. She and her team find ways to work with industry.”

Yet there’s more about how Courtney’s career informs Kristi’s path-finding. “She has a Masters, I have a Masters. And she’s running a cooperatives center,” Kristi explains. “Courtney demonstrates and models how far I can take my own Masters Degree.”

“Seeing what they are producing at the Wisconsin center pushes me here.” Kristi’s deep respect for the work of Courtney Berner and the team at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Cooperatives is plainly evident. “It shows me what else we can do here in North Dakota. I get so excited; it re-invigorates my own work!”

Path two for leveraging a masters degree and leadership in a center to possibly direct a cooperative center or agricultural association herself some day? Check!

PATH 3: CEO SCHWEISS?

“The first professional conference I went to was the Association of Cooperative Educators. That’s where I met Char.”

Char’s path is exciting – and perhaps a bit terrifying – to Kristi because it branches out from education and outreach-oriented work and into the business-building at the very heart of successful cooperatives.

“Char was a rising star at Cooperative Network,” observes Kristi. Cooperative Network happens to be America’s largest (by membership) regional cooperative council. “Then she got ‘scooped up’ into a broader part of the cooperative community, working on health care.”

“There’s a huge gap in health care for rural America,” notes Kristi. And I can hear the awe in Kristi’s voice as she recounts and describes Char’s key role in helping form one of the first (possibly only?) health care cooperative in America exclusively focused on farmers and the agricultural economy. I know Char well enough to recognize that she credits both (i) Cooperative Network’s rural membership for the impetus to start the health care cooperative as well as (ii) the 2004 Congressional appropriations that made 40 Square possible years later.

Still, Kristi’s right. Char is impressive. And Char’s decision to take-on career risk by stepping out of a cooperative trade association and into the hard toil of cooperative business development is doubly impressive. Kristi continues, “she has made a way for herself, pioneering new ways at the intersection of agriculture and health care.”

Throughout our conversation, Kristi mentions many, many mentors throughout the agricultural sector and cooperative community alike, including widely known, deeply respected figures like Cathy Statz of the Wisconsin Farmers Union and William Nelson, retired from CHS leadership (and still very active throughout the cooperative economy). 

Yet Char is clearly a special friend and mentor for Kristi, describing her relationship via a poultry metaphor everyone will have heard – and every farmer will more deeply understand: “She has taken me under her wing.”

Kristi’s reflections about Char’s path, in turn, make me think about amazing leaders like Michele Longtin and Beth Ford.

Path three – business leadership as modeled by Char? Check!

CIRCLING BACK TO COOPERATIVE PRINCIPLES AND POWER

Without breaking stride, Kristi returns to the power of cooperatives. “Your cooperative is there for a reason,” Kristi states bluntly. “And it’s unique.” Yet she also notes that cooperatives are also uniquely part of a broader network of cooperation, domestically and globally, linked via principles and shared values.

“Together? Together we can accomplish more than we can accomplish alone.” This seemingly simple observation reveals, to Kristi, the inherent power of cooperatives.

“We’ve accomplished so much in the past, socially, economically, and politically, with the help of cooperatives,” she continues, “I really think we need them more than ever now to ‘make ends meet’ where other systems have failed us.”

Thank you, Kristi, for stating the case for cooperation clearly and succinctly. And thank you, too, for your candor about the realities of growing your career in agriculture and cooperation.

MY KEY TAKE-AWAYS FROM THE INTERVIEW WITH KRISTI:

Throughout my own career, I find great benefit in learning from other people’s experiences. Particularly when those experiences are quite distinct from my own personal and professional context.

  1. From a business perspective, how can Kristi’s experience inform how I will show up going forward? This includes, of course, having conversations with male colleagues.
  2. From a policy perspective, how can I leverage Kristi’s observations about the power and benefit cooperative business models for current and future work in rural America (where I happen to live)?
  3. From a personal perceptive, how can I challenge my own assumptions about who a farmer ‘is’?

ENOUGH ABOUT ME: WHAT ABOUT YOU?

What do you takeaway from this interview with Kristi Schweiss?

What strikes you as intuitively correct from Kristi’s perspective about the power of cooperatives, particularly in relation to rural American and family famers?

Where might you disagree with her perspective?

Are there different or additional lessons from your own experience about how to view agriculture, agri-business and cooperation through the gender lens?

JOIN THE CONVERSATION ON LINKEDIN

And, Kristi Schweiss, many thanks for your time, insights and, especially, your candor.

To think we originally thought this article would focus on the tax treatment of cooperatives! (Another day.) I look forward to following your path, Kristi, wherever it may lead you.

Adelante. Kadima. Forward!

– C