As a woman who just graduated with a degree in agriculture, Sarah Peterson is a trendsetter.
The 2008 graduate of Kaneland High School grew up on a farm near Maple Park, participated in FFA in high school, studied agriculture in college and is now teaching agriculture at DeKalb High School.
“I pretty much always wanted to do something that involved agriculture and animals,” said Peterson, who recently married beef and grain farmer Pete Peterson of Shabbona.
The American Farm Bureau reports that in a national study of 70 land-grant universities, undergraduate women outnumbered men in agriculture programs by more than 2,900 in 2011. As recently as 2004, men outnumbered women by more than 1,400 in the traditionally male-dominated programs.
Every state has at least one land-grant university, which were founded with federal funds to emphasize subjects related to the nation’s agricultural and industrial development in their curricula. In Illinois, the role is filled by the University of Illinois.
“I think it is really neat that more females are getting involved,” said Mariam Wassmann, director of information at the DeKalb County Farm Bureau. “Many of the females don’t come from a farm, but they are pursuing an ag career.”
Like DeKalb, FFA clubs at Sycamore, Genoa-Kingston and Indian Creek high schools have female advisers. Peterson studied animal science during her first year at the University of Illinois, but she switched her major to agriculture education her sophomore year.
“I missed FFA and sharing ag with the general public,” Peterson said. “I think there are a lot more opportunities in ag now, so I think that’s why more women are getting involved. My (FFA) president and vice-president are both female, and they would both like to pursue ag someday.”
Kelsey Faivre, 16, is the DeKalb chapter’s vice-president and plans to study agriculture communication and animal science. She hopes to work for an agricultural newspaper, as an agricultural literacy coordinator, or in public relations for a large agricultural company like Monsanto or DuPont. She noted that almost any field of study can have an agricultural focus.
“In the ag industry there has been a big increase in age-related fields like being an ag lawyer or an ag lender,” Kelsey said.
As the agricultural economy grows more complex and automated, modern farmers are learning to work smarter, but not necessarily harder. Kara Poynter, agriculture teacher and FFA adviser at Sycamore High School, said focusing more on science than physical labor makes the field more appealing to girls. Her agriculture business class this year has three boys and 14 girls.
“I think it’s because it is becoming more science-based with biotechnology and renewable energy,” she said. “The way I advertise my class now is that it’s science-based and it’s for everyone.”
Autumn Salis, 16, of Clare, agrees.
“Agriculture is definitely more appealing because of the science aspect,” the Sycamore junior said. “Farming isn’t about being strong anymore – it is more about brains.”
Autumn operates Autumn’s Happy Hens on her family’s farm. Her egg business has 90 hens that produce four dozen eggs a day. She is considering studying poultry science in college, and also hopes to study agriculture education, “so I could get middle school and high school kids excited about doing ag.”
The expanding field of agriculture has led to more entrepreneurial opportunities. Krystan Scheffler, a former student of Poynter’s, is studying animal science at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville at Poynter’s suggestion. Scheffler did not grow up on a farm.
“(Poynter) is the one who got me started on it,” Scheffler said. “I took her intro to ag class my freshman year and then I joined FFA sophomore year.”
By her senior year, Scheffler was president of the chapter. Once she finishes with school, she plans to return to Illinois as a businesswoman.
“I am trying to go for my master’s in animal nutrition and then open my own animal nutrition company someday,” she said.