She’s Taking Care of Business
By Dan Campbell, Editor
Does it ever feel like the bar sometimes gets set a few notches higher for a woman looking to fill an agricultural leadership position traditionally held by a man? Mary Fritz, a Montana grain and cattle producer, needs only about one second to ponder this question before answering: “Oh yeah!”
In 18 years of serving in leadership positions in the Farm Credit System, Fritz has had to contend with some who thought a woman wasn’t capable of the job. But it hasn’t stopped her from attaining leadership positions in the Farm Credit System that no woman had held before her, and in which she has proven to be more than capable of taking care of business. Any vestiges of sexism encountered along the way have been viewed as obstacles to be dealt with and overcome, never as a stopping point.
“Mary has definitely been a great leader for women in the Farm Credit System (FCS),” says Everett Dobrinski, chairman of the CoBank board. In 1994, Fritz became the first woman ever elected to her local Farm Credit advisory board in Montana. While she found that some of the board members readily accepted her presence, others “were from the old school. I had to prove myself over and over.” Her business skills and knowledge gradually won them over, and she was elected board vice-chair in 2000 and board chair in 2002.
Fritz went on to become the first woman elected to the board of Northwest Farm Credit Services, which oversees FCS operations in five states. She then became the first elected woman board member at CoBank and the first woman on the Farm Credit Council (FCC) board, Farm Credit’s policy organization. She was elected vice-chair of the FCC board in 2011.
“If my husband had been in my position, and walked into some of those board rooms, no one would have questioned his ability the way some did with me,” Fritz recalls.
“For example, in the old days, candidates for the Northwest Farm Credit board would go from state to state, and each candidate would make a presentation before the ballots were mailed out. In Oregon, a nice elderly man who reminded me of my grandpa, sat me down, patted my hand and told me: ‘Honey, you did a really nice job, but this is a man’s world.’ It was like spitting in your eye!” she recalls, although able to laugh at it now.
“With some guys on the board, it took a year or two for them to come around, but they usually did.”
Fritz’s role at Farm Credit is part of a larger trend with an increasing number of women taking on leadership roles in agriculture. According to the most recent farm census, women are the principal operators of more than 14 percent of the nation’s farms, a 22 percent increase since 1997.
But those numbers don’t reflect the fact that a typical U.S. family farm is run as a partnership by a farm couple, Fritz says. On her Quarter Circle JF Ranch, near Chester, Mont., Fritz is basically the business office manager for the operation. She shares marketing work with her husband and handles virtually all of the bookkeeping. She is also more than capable of hopping on a combine or tractor when the farming workload requires.
When a farm couple such as the Fritzes walks into a Farm Credit office to renew a loan, it is often the wife — in her role as bookkeeper — who provides most of the financial data, she notes. Serving on a Farm Credit board thus seemed to be a natural fit, once it was suggested to her.
“My husband, John, and I have always been partners, so I saw no reason not to give it a shot when it was suggested I run for the advisory board, although I never expected to win that first race,” Fritz recalls. But she did, proving that, for everyone who thought a woman wasn’t suited for the job, there were plenty of others who didn’t see it as a problem.
It didn’t hurt that the Fritzes are well regarded in their area for running an efficient farming and ranching operation and are strong supporters of their Farm Credit cooperative. The Fritz’s main crops are hard red winter and spring wheat, malt barley, forage peas (mixed with barley, for use on their own farm) and dry peas that are processed in the area and exported, usually to India or Pakistan. They own an irrigated hay farm (currently being leased out) 150 miles away from the home farm and also raise all-natural Black Angus beef cattle.
“To get the all-natural label, we can’t use any growth hormones or antibiotics,” Fritz explains. “That’s easy for us, because we get our growth through genetics. We have lots of space for calving, so we rarely get sick calves. If we do, and it needs treatment, we keep meticulous records and that animal will not be sold as all-natural.”
The farm is in an area called the Golden Triangle of Montana that is well suited for growing high-protein red wheat without much need for inputs. “We do need some fertilizer and nitrogen, but because of the good soil conditions, you don’t have to break the bank putting nitrogen on it.”
The area is also well known for its malt barley production. “There are several companies in the area that buy it, so the competition is great,” Fritz says.
Transportation costs and related issues are always a big economic factor for producers, but the Fritz farm is benefitting from two new 110-car shuttle loaders in the area.
Adding new perspective
After so many years serving on boards and running the farm with her husband, Fritz has concluded that there are subtle differences in the ways men and women typically go about decision-making and addressing a problem. That’s a good thing, she believes.
“I see many things differently than my husband does, and differently than do many of the guys on the board. When you have a combination of men and women on a board, I think you get a broader view - a 360-degree view of things.” For example, she thinks women have a tendency to be more adept at reaching consensus and tend to be more careful listeners.
What personal traits have served her best as a co-op director? “We do a peer evaluation every year, and I am often described as a willing listener who strives to see all aspects of a situation - and as a person who looks for opportunities to find compromise. I’ve also been told I have good communications skills.”
John Fritz isn’t shy about doing his own, less scientific analysis of his wife. “He says I am way too analytical and a little on the conservative side — which I don’t agree with, of course,” she says with a laugh.
Fritz recently attended a Northwest Farm Credit meeting and was pleased to see that there were more women on local advisory boards than she had seen previously. “The numbers of women serving on co-op and association boards across the country seems to be increasing. At national meetings, I definitely see more lady members.”
Co-ops - with their history of democratic governance and their role of “equalizer” in the marketplace - should be especially cognizant of the need to get more women active in leadership positions, Fritz feels. “Co-ops need to realize that women have a lot to offer. Many of them know their businesses inside and out, and they have just as much to offer on the board as their husbands do. We just have to break out of this traditional mindset that agriculture is a man’s world.”
Technology helpful for women farmers
Keeping abreast of all the evolving technology used on farm machinery can be a challenge, Fritz says. “Luckily, my husband is a tech nut.” She “fought tooth and nail” with him when he wanted to get auto-steer on their new combine. “I was used to our old machine and being able to hear every little nuance of it.” But when the new combine arrived with auto-steer, he said “‘Come on and try it, you will like it.’ And darned if I don’t.”
She enjoys driving combines and feels that a lot of the new technology makes it easier for women to do more hands-on farming. “For example, it used to be hard for me to unload grain because you had to manually haul a big auger into position; it was especially hard under hopper-bottom trailers. Now, everything is hydraulic; it moves itself.
“We have GPS guidance systems on the combines and tractors now for spraying and seeding. It is amazing, but everything has gotten bigger and more expensive. Up where we are [near the Canadian border with Montana], labor is difficult to come by. We do have hired help, but have to compensate with machinery.”
Annie’s Project Helps Women Farmers
Rose Holste has run a row crop and hay operation in Iowa with her husband since 1968. Even with decades of experience, she still wanted to learn more about the business side of farming. Several years ago, she found out about Annie’s Project, a national program designed to help women in agriculture. “It was so worth the time,” Holste says. “The sessions were all well planned and presented and gave me a new perspective. We’ve definitely applied the information to our lives and our operation.” Annie’s Project (short for “Annie’s National Network Initiative for Educational Success”) is a six-week course that teaches risk-management, problem-solving, recordkeeping and decision-making skills. Classes are designed around specific regional needs and help participants develop local support networks. Since its inception in 2009, Annie’s Project has served more than 6,500 women in 25 states. Farm Credit’s national sponsorship is helping to support Annie’s Project. This program has something for every age group and every situation,” Holste says. “The group that attended with me was diversified, which made the discussions interesting. I felt that everyone who attended walked away with new knowledge.” For more information, visit: Annie's Project Website.
- Courtesy Farm Credit System
Merger puts demands on directors
The time commitment for serving on a co-op board is usually greater than anticipated, especially in the early years, Frtiz says. “There is an education process you go through. You may have great business sense for your own operation, but when you get on a board like Northwest Farm Credit or CoBank, many businesses that you are dealing with are very different from your own.”
The last couple of years serving on the CoBank board has involved an “exceptionally heavy workload” because of the recently completed merger with U.S. AgBank, she says. “That required a lot of director involvement, due to the stockholder issues and the need to monitor all the financials.”
Moving from the Northwest Farm Credit to the CoBank board was a big switch, she found. “There are similarities when moving from an association to a bank board, but also differences.” At both Northwest and CoBank, a director’s most important job, she says, is to hire skilled management and set policy for the CEO to carry out. “From a proper distance, you watch to see that policy is being carried out; but you don’t get your nose or fingers into running the business.”
The scope and scale of the two operations, however, is quite different. “Northwest is a regional association with a five-state footprint that delivers credit services to members. CoBank is its wholesale parent and also has a retail arm; it has a national footprint and even does some international business.”
One of the driving forces behind the merger with U.S. AgBank (also a producer-owned co-op), Fritz says, was a desire to spread the risk that comes from having a concentrated loan portfolio. With this merger, the bank has a more balanced portfolio consisting of roughly 50 percent wholesale business and 50 percent retail business, she notes. Adding California to CoBank’s trade area via the merger should be especially helpful in spreading risk both geographically and over a larger mix of commodities.
“I have no doubt that this will make for a stronger, more resilient bank,” she says.
Her CoBank term expires in 2015, and at this point, Fritz says she is leaning toward retiring from the board after that. “I wanted to see this merger through, which I’ve done; now I am leaning toward allowing someone with younger, fresher ideas to come on when my term expires.”
She hopes that more women will continue to pursue leadership roles in Farm Credit and the larger co-op world. Step forward, she urges women producers, if you think you have something to bring to the board room that can help your co-op.
Fear of failure probably prevents many good people, men and women, from running for co-op boards, she says. “They don’t want take a risk of failure. But the rewards far outweigh the risk of failure. Serving on these boards has been such an enriching and educational process for me. I can’t even put a value on it.
“I have learned so many things that increased my business skills — we’ve changed some of our business and farming practices as result of what I have learned doing this. I would strongly encourage any woman who thinks she can do the job to try it.”
Reprinted Article with Permissions:
Campbell, Dan. "She's Taking Care of Business." Rural Cooperatives Mar. 2012. Rpt. in. Vol. Volume 79, Number 2.
Washington, DC.: USDA/Rural Development, 2012. 4-6.