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[Source: INEDA, 03.2016 | Keywords: Women, Agriculture, Dealership]

You don’t have to look far to see women working in an ag-related field. From farm operators and agronomists, to sales representatives, advocates and dealership management, women today play an increasingly vital role in agriculture.   

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, nearly 1 million women – almost a third of our nationís farmers – work Americaís lands. These women generate $12.9 billion in annual agricultural sales. 

With nearly 32,167 women farmers in Iowa in 2012, the womenís agricultural workforce grew 15% from 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The number of women operators in Nebraska also increased 23% to 19,851 farmers during that same time period. This translates to a $474M economic impact in Iowa and a $432M economic impact in Nebraska. 

Colleges across the Midwest have also experienced a spike in female interest in their agricultural programs in recent years. Enrollment at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University went up 57.4% among women between 2005 and 2015, while the University of Nebraska-Lincoln saw a 51.8% increase in its College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources during that same time period. While some of these women hope to return to the family farm with college degrees, many are finding careers stretching beyond traditional farming roles. 

Each of the following women have broken down the barriers and left their mark in the ever changing agricultural industry. 

Alyssa Donegan | Sales Coordinator

Growing up, Alyssa Donegan never envisioned herself working at Star Equipment, the family business established by her grandparents, Max and Bev Bowman & their longtime friend, in 1968. However, that’s exactly where she ended up and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Alyssa started working part-time at the Cedar Rapids location while attending high school and then the University of Iowa, where she double majored in Marketing & Management. A conversation with her dad, Brad Bowman, got her thinking about joining the family business full-time following graduation. “When I told my dad that I enjoyed what I was doing at Star Equipment, he told me I would always have a place in the business,” reflected Alyssa.

“It was then that I realized I had found my workplace home.” – Alyssa

For the last nine years, Alyssa has worked at Star’s Des Moines location. “I graduated from the University of Iowa on a Saturday, moved to Des Moines the next day and reported to work that Monday,” reflected Alyssa, who has never looked back. In her role as Sales Coordinator, Alyssa is in charge of inventory control, where she recommends and places stock orders, and bills out sold units.

Initially, the greatest challenge Alyssa faced on the job was overcoming vendor concerns about dealing with a young woman. “When I first started, I could tell that some vendors were uncomfortable working with me (a young woman) because they assumed I wouldn’t know what I was talking about,” explained Alyssa. “However, once they got to know me they quickly discovered that I really did know a thing or two about the industry.”

Alyssa has also noticed that she tends to utilize different practices than the guys at the dealership. “I’m a big fan of positive reinforcement,” she explained. “So if I catch anyone doing things right, I recognize them right there on the spot. In turn, they will usually continue to do things correctly.”

She encourages women working in the equipment industry to remain confident in their abilities. “Make sure you know what you are talking about and communicate with confidence, because in my experience men will double check what you say before they validate your presence in the dealership,” concluded Alyssa.

Diane Loeffelbein | Owner

When Diane Loeffelbein first started working at Ken’s Equipment 37 years ago, she ran the parts counter. Today, she owns the Loup City, Nebraska dealership. “Back then, it was very hard for some of the customers to accept the fact that I (a woman) might know a specific part,” reflected Diane. “Things sure have come a long way since then.”

Diane met and married her husband, Kenneth, after graduating from college with a degree in Restaurant/Hotel Management. At the time, Kenneth was co-owner of the Allis-Chalmers dealership in town. In 1980, Ken and Diane bought the partner out and became sole owners of the dealership.

When the recession hit shortly thereafter, Diane and Kenneth bought some equipment and began renting land and farming with the hopes of earning some extra income. Eventually they purchased a ranch with a large scale operation, something they continued operating for nearly 20 years alongside the dealership.

After Kenneth passed away in 2008, Diane became the sole owner of the dealership. “Taking over the dealership after my husband’s death was by far the greatest challenge I have ever faced,” explained Diane, who credits her employees with helping her through the transition. “Were it not for a good team I would not have anything. They are key to our dealership’s success.”

Today, the self-described “people-person” continues to find enjoyment in helping her customers. “I grew up on a farm and know first-hand what goes on at a farm, so I can empathize with my customers and what they face on a daily basis,” said Diane, whose favorite part of the job is a satisfied customer. “When a customer smiles at you and tells you ‘job well done,’ you know that you’ve made them happy. That is my absolute favorite thing.”

Diane believes there will be more women working in equipment dealerships over time and hopes this will include female technicians as well. “Ag is such a good life. I really enjoy being part of this community,” stated Diane. “I hope more women discover the joy I have found working in this industry.”

Renae Pruess | Attachment/Special Projects Manager

Growing up on a farm made such an impression on Renae Pruess that she decided to pursue a career in agriculture. “When I went off to college I wanted to earn a degree that would allow me to be involved with agriculture off the farm,” said Renae.

She earned her degree in Agricultural Systems Technology at Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “I was the only female in most of my ag classes at Iowa State,” said Renae. “I think this made my transition to working in a male-dominated industry easier. It wasn’t such a huge slap in the face.”

After college, she went to work at Van Wall Equipment in Perry, Iowa, pulling parts for work orders and transfers. Two years later, she moved to work at the front parts counter, where she was eventually named Parts Manager. “I worked hard to win customers over and to overcome the stigma of the “young gal” behind the parts counter,” explained Renae.

“I wanted to become the best parts person I could be.” – Renae

Today, Renae works as the Attachment/Special Projects Manager, where she oversees several side projects and manages inventory for AMS equipment, soil moisture probes, John Deere attachments, solar panels and wind turbines. “You have to be able to roll with and adapt to change in this job,” said Renae, who looks forward to continued growth in her role at Van Wall. “I’m involved with so many things that I often get thrown in several directions throughout the day. That is both my favorite and most frustrating part of the job.”

She added, “Eleven years ago, I was the only female working at a Van Wall parts department. Today, there are three females working in parts departments and several more in other departments throughout the company. I definitely see this trend continuing.”

Outside of work, Renae can often be found helping out on the family farm in Clarence, Iowa. The operation features cattle, hogs and row crops. Ironically, her mom and brother remain loyal Case IH equipment operators, despite the fact that Renae works for a John Deere dealership. “Don likes to give me a hard time about this,” said Renae with a smile.

Andrea McDonald | Salesperson

Andrea McDonald is a country girl through and through. Growing up on a ranch near Alliance, Nebraska, Andrea always knew that she wanted to work in an ag-related field.

After earning a degree in Agribusiness Management at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, Andrea worked in retail management at a farm and ranch store before joining the staff at Modern Farm Equipment in Gordon, Nebraska. Nearly 17 years later, Andrea can still be found calling on farmers and ranchers for the dealership.

“I started at Modern Farm Equipment as a customer support representative and did that for nine years before moving to my current position in sales,” explained Andrea, who had approached dealership management about the move. “At the time, I was ready for the jump to a more challenging position.”

She said the biggest adjustment when she became a sales representative wasn’t with her, but her customers. “They would tell me that they missed seeing me in their yards several times a year versus just once a year. It felt good to be appreciated by my customers.”

Over the years, Andrea has faced very little opposition to being a female in her position. “For the most part, I would say my co-workers and customers readily accepted me, a female, working at the dealership,” she explained. “I think it helped that some of my territory is where I grew up, so I already knew several of the customers.”

She added, “Every now and then I encounter a skeptical customer who challenges me because I’m female. I’ve found the best way to handle this is honesty. I let them know if I can’t answer a question and get to work to find the answer.” Andrea is also grateful for the support she receives from management at Modern Farm Equipment.

The self-described “people person” thoroughly enjoys working with her customers and facing the daily challenges that come along with the job. “I like my job and my customers,” concluded Andrea. “My friends often joke that we can’t go anywhere without running into someone I know. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Julie Vetter | Accounting/Business Manager

After graduating from Simpson College with a business degree, Julie secured a job as parts & merchandise representative with Deere & Co. “I was the first woman to travel western Iowa and call on John Deere dealerships,” reflected Julie. “At that time (mid-70s) women in the equipment industry were an anomaly, especially women in a traveling position. It was pretty much considered a man’s world.”

Julie left Deere & Co. to work with her husband, Glen, who managed an International Harvester dealership in Denison, Iowa. “We were only a one-store operation at that time, so I helped out where needed, from bookkeeping and showroom merchandising, to working in the parts department. I basically did everything but sell or fix equipment,” reflected Julie, who enjoyed the flexible hours when the couple started having children.

In 1994, she came back to work full-time in the accounting office when Vetter started purchasing additional stores. In 2007, Julie stepped into her current role as Accounting/Business Manager for the complex of 11 stores. “I really enjoy working with the financial aspect of the business,” said Julie. “It requires me to be tenacious, to multi-task and to utilize my organizational skills.”

Over the years, she has noticed more women working in a variety of roles at equipment dealerships. “I think it is good to have a mix of males/females working at a dealership, because customers tend to be a little less gruff when a female is present,” expressed Julie. “It provides a nice balance.”

Julie feels women bring a special skill set to the job as well. “They tend to be very detail-oriented. As a result, they are much better at things like writing warranties and claims and handling the paperwork associated with both.”

She encourages young women to consider a career in the equipment industry. “Women can handle any position in the industry, from calling on dealers and selling equipment or parts, to marketing, accounting and more,” concluded Julie. “They just need to have the propensity to go after these jobs.”

Denise Nelsen | Territory Manager

Denise Nelsen, a familiar face to Nebraska equipment dealers, has been part of the Farm Credit Services of America family for nearly 25 years. “When I started my career with Farm Credit, I worked at the front desk answering phones,” recalled Denise. “Over the years I worked my way up to processing loans and eventually, helping with the leasing program.”

Today, Denise works as a Territory Manager for AgDirect, her self-described “dream job.” In this role, Denise travels around the state of Nebraska, calling on equipment dealerships to visit with salespeople about financing options for the farm equipment they sell. “My dad and late husband both were ag equipment salespeople and I always wanted to work in this area,” explained Denise. “When AgDirect started in 1998, my dream came true.”

Denise admitted that she had to develop a tough skin to work in the male-dominated industry. “When I first started in this position I felt like I needed to prove myself more than the guys,” explained Denise. “I had to demonstrate that I knew what I was talking about in order to gain their respect and show them that I could hang with the guys.”

Travel is another aspect of the job that Denise feels might make it a bit more difficult for women. “This job requires a lot of travel and overnight stays, which might be hard for a woman with young children,” said Denise. “I was fortunate that my kids were all grown up when I started in this position.”

The things Denise enjoys most about her job are the relationships she has built with dealership sales personnel and customers, and her co-workers at Farm Credit Services of America. “I have developed some great friendships and relationships over the years,” expressed Denise. “These relationships are what keep me going in this job.”

According to Denise, more women are holding positions at AgDriect than when she first started, a trend she hopes will continue for many years to come.

Janet Eggers | President

Janet Eggers didn’t envision herself working at the family dealership when she set off to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to earn a degree in Accounting. However, her plans changed following graduation when she met her future husband (Kim) working at the family’s Superior dealership.

Janet and Kim married in the early 80s during the ag recession. They worked together to build the Superior location back up from scratch while Janet helped with the books at the Geneva location three days a week. During those early years, Janet felt she had to prove herself to everyone. “I was both the boss’s child and a female,” explained Janet. “So I definitely had to develop a tough skin and work extra hard to earn the respect of both the customers and my co-workers.”

Today, Janet is president of the corporation, which is comprised of three dealership locations in Geneva, Hebron and Superior, Nebraska. “Over the years I’ve had to battle the mindset that I am the leader with some of the new customers who are skeptical when they discover that a female is running the dealership,” said Janet. “However, by the time they leave the office they all recognize that I am in charge.”

Her favorite part of the job is the people. “I enjoy getting to work with some terrific people, from the company representatives, to my customers and employees,” expressed Janet. Her son, Bryan, recently came to work at the dealership after earning his degree in Finance. “I think he’s enjoying it way more than he thought he would,” said Janet.

She feels women are more detail-oriented than men. “I feel that women make very good employees in the parts department because they tend to be more meticulous about things being in place and in order,” said Janet. “It’s just part of our nature.”

Janet concluded, “I never intended to be the heir-elect of the family business. I guess the one thing I did right was to show up to work every day and do the job right. It took persistence and a strong work ethic.”