Montana – The 2017 Census of Agriculture reports that 36% of producers in the United States are women. Two years later, the Agribusiness HR Review showed that more than sixty percent of the companies surveyed were showing a significant increase in the number of women in the workforce, with signs of continued growth.
Other types of businesses, such as apiaries, restaurants and other local businesses, are critical to bringing healthy and wholesome food to Montana communities.
Virginia Cross “Sticky” partners with sunny beekeepers in Columbus, MT to create a versatile sugar-free spread. The idea came from trying to make something that would satisfy her husband’s sweet tooth while also cutting back on the sugar that other sweets usually provide.
“I enjoy the aspect of providing something for people. I’m a mom and a grandmother, and yes, I like the whole aspect of caring for people and providing something that’s good for them.”
Virginia products are sold at farmers markets and food centers in Billings and at the popular Prerogative Kitchen in Red Lodge.
Gena Burghoff, who runs Prerogative Kitchen, works with ranches and farms across the state to keep their menu full of farm-fresh produce and Montana meats.
Gena shared why this philosophy of sourcing local food is so important to her and her restaurant: “I think sourcing carrots from China is special, yes, they can go that far, but they should. So I think the taste , nutrients , the most important thing is that our diets are rough right now. There are a lot of health problems and we don’t know why people have so many diseases that go undiagnosed and I think it’s really important to know where your food comes from. your food only for the general health of the public.”
As women take a more active role in agriculture, they are beginning to realize the lack of tools made specifically for working women.
Red Ants Pants is a woman owned and operated business in White Sulfur Springs, MT. They focus on keeping women who work in agriculture safe and comfortable in their durable clothing.
Sarah Calhoun, founder of Red Ants Pants, saw a need in her community and decided to fill it: “(I started the company back in 2006 because there was no other heavy duty pant product on the market that fit all women’s shapes and sizes and straight and curved and everything, so I decided to change it.”
All three of these women have noticed a shift in the market that emphasizes shopping local.
Sarah expresses how crucial these stores are to the community that surrounds them, “with small businesses in any industry, these are the companies that are the cornerstones of your neighborhoods and your small-town communities, especially the backbones of communities, and that’s really important, as far as the human component is concerned”
But local shopping hasn’t always been the norm for the Treasure State, and Gena shared how the local market has shifted during her years as owner.
“It’s really amazing how local food has moved on in the last ten years. When we opened our food truck, people were really confused that we were using local produce, and we were like, your friend grows it, it’s your neighbor who did this. “And now I think it’s commonplace and people are realizing how important it is to support local business and it extends to farmers and ranchers.”
And Virginia added how she thinks the change will affect the state.
“I think this is the way forward for Montana. It’s extremely important and it’s gaining traction. I think people like to buy from local producers, know where it’s from and like to meet the producers.”
As local businesses begin to gain traction, more women in Montana are taking on leadership roles thanks to the support they receive from the community.
“I was lucky in the sense that I was my own boss from the start, so I didn’t have to break through any glass ceilings. I just built my own ladder and climbed it.” -Sarah Calhoun
“I don’t feel like I’m necessarily challenged as a business owner. I think it has something to do with being in Montana. I think in Wyoming, in this area of Montana, we need both genders to be equal and pull together one rope.” – Gene Burghoff
As Montanans know, it doesn’t matter who does the work as long as the work gets done.
And Sarah shares her work on what makes a local Montana business so successful, especially in rural areas.
“In a place like White Sulphur, the women do all the work all the time right next to the man. There’s not a lot of ranch work or projects that are gender specific. Everyone pitches in and gets the job done.”
However, Gena worries that many in the country may still see agriculture, farming and production as a male activity.
“I can see that women are so equal in this area, but I’m not sure that’s the case everywhere in the country. You lean a little more on the fact that the farmers are men.”
And as time goes on, Gena says the agriculture industry will continue to change, either by choice or force. “Whatever the reasons for our climate change, I think we need to realize that it’s happening. You know we have different insects coming further north. We have water if you look at the big agricultural area down in Fromberg with the flooding .” I mean, we lost everything they produced this summer because of it. We have to be aware of the challenges that are coming and I hope that people can be more proactive. If they don’t have a passion for environmental issues, at least I hope I will have a passion to recognize the problems our farms and agriculture are going through right now.”
Whatever happens, these small businesses will continue to work together to create a healthier, more sustainable state.
“I think they’re really the key to Montana being successful in the future because local is what it’s all about. That’s why the prices are so high, the transportation and the supply chain and everything.” – Virginia Cross
– all while raising and increasing the number of women-led businesses.
“The future is ripe for more female leadership, especially in rural Montana and across America, frankly. There’s so much potential, and I think with more and more examples and stories being shared, I think we’re going to see more expansion and more people who are moving to the countryside, and there are so many opportunities for women to step up in these business and leadership roles.” -Sarah Calhoun