By Matt Reese
In the very male-dominated world of agricultural leadership, multiple women in top leadership positions generates a fair amount of attention from the outside looking in, even if it may not from the inside looking out. Tadd Nicholson, executive director of Ohio Corn & Wheat, has often been asked about the current number of women in leadership positions within the organization, including Patty Mann who is serving as the organization’s first female president.
“To be honest, it didn’t really occur to me that we were promoting females up through the leadership chain, they just happened to be some of our best leaders,” Nicholson said. “Patty Mann is our current president and Kelly Harsh is coming in as our vice president to be president right behind her. For these two years, our organization will be led by females who just happen to be great leaders on our board.”
In addition, Gail Lierer from Butler County is the current chair of the Corn Checkoff Board. Nicholson said the increase in the number of women in leadership roles in the organization in recent years is a welcome change.
“It has been very refreshing. Good leaders will talk about the issues with us. It does add to the discussion and benefits us to be diverse as a board with the issues we are talking about in agriculture,” Nicholson said. “Whether it is seasoned veterans versus young farmers or female farmers versus male farmers, the different perspectives they bring to our board make us better and we have noticed that.”
Nicholson also noticed that the growing diversity of the leadership sets the stage for a future of increased diversity.
“Great female leaders attract other great female leaders. That is one of the things we have noticed while having these leaders on our board. I think it will be easier for us to continue to attract female leaders in the future because of the leaders we have now,” Nicholson said. “It also reflects what we see in the student body involved with agriculture at our colleges and universities, our internship program and in our Collegiate Policy Academy program. We see a large portion of females participating in agriculture today and it is really great to see.”
When she started her term as Ohio Corn & Wheat president, Patty Mann was not even sure if she was the first woman to serve in the position.
“I never really thought about being the first women who served as president too much. I just stepped into a role that was needed to get the job done,” she said. “I never gave it a whole lot of thought and it has never been made an issue at Ohio Corn & Wheat, but diversity is always a great thing, whether it be gender or just a difference in opinion. It makes for a well-rounded board. We would definitely encourage more women to step up and take these leadership roles.”
Mann farms with her husband, Dave, and their children in Shelby County. They moved to the Jackson Center area in 1987, with cows, and continued milking until 2008 when they dispersed the herd. At that time they expanded the grain operation and now focus their efforts on corn and soybeans. Their son, Chris, and daughter, Shelby Fite, have taken on full time roles on the farm as well, which has allowed more opportunities for Mann to focus on her role as president of Ohio Corn and & Wheat.
“I have really enjoyed being on the board and I am thankful for the privilege of serving as president,” she said. “I have really enjoyed my time this year serving the farmers of Ohio. It has been a great use of my time.”
Needless to say, though, her yearlong term as president that started Jan. 1, 2020 has offered plenty of unique challenges.
“We started out in January when it is a busy time of year with meetings and travel. In January, I got the opportunity to go to the White House for the signing of the USMCA Agreement. I was just a very short distance from President Trump at that event. It was by invitation and it was exciting. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. I also got to present the ‘Friend of Ohio Corn & Wheat Award’ to Governor Mike DeWine in February. Soon after that, the coronavirus hit. We were at our annual lobbying mission in Washington, D.C. and the city was shutting down because of the virus as we were trying to get out of town. That was pretty much the end of travel,” Mann said. “From that point on, the meetings have all been virtual and I have been doing a lot of Zooming. It has been a little disappointing. I do enjoy the travel between the busy times on the farm, but many of the events have been canceled and it has been quite a bit different not being there in person. Some of the virtual meetings allow more people to take part in them, so it has allowed more interaction and participation in some ways. We are trying to carry on the best we can with the situation we have been dealt.”
Beyond changing the dynamics of how her role was carried out this year, the pandemic had very real implications for agricultural commodities as a whole.
“The disappointing thing is how the virus killed corn demand. Ethanol demand was down with people stuck at home and not travelling to work. A lot of ethanol plants cut their production and some shut down temporarily. It really hurt export demand for corn too. It showed us how our work is more important than ever,” Mann said. “Now China is making more purchases and ethanol demand is coming back up as the economy has started back up again and people have gotten back to work, but we still have a long way to go. We are seeing that demand increase and that is a good sign.”
At the same time, ethanol has been mired in bureaucratic battles at the federal level.
“The issue of the gap year waivers has been a big deal. I think we may have that behind us now as Trump ordered the EPA to disallow those. In general, ethanol demand has come back quite a ways,” Mann said. “In Ohio and around the country we are seeing the benefits of a higher blend infrastructure program to install pumps in more fuel stations that can provide higher ethanol blends. That should also help with ethanol demand moving forward. The program has been pretty successful.”
The H2Ohio program has been another significant issue at the state level that has been a part of Mann’s focus in 2020. As she wraps up her term as Ohio Corn & Wheat president in the next few weeks, Mann is excited for the future of the organization and women involved in agriculture.
“I see the trend of women managers and women involved in farming operations and I think it will continue to increase moving forward. I think it is exciting. I don’t know the percentage of female farm operators but I do know it is higher than what a lot of people would expect. I have had the opportunity here on our farm to work full time because we have enough acres. My husband and I make all the management decisions jointly and now we involve the kids as well,” Mann said. “My daughter is employed on the farm full time and she is a great asset and a great benefit. Her being there allows me to slip away to a few more meetings than I would have been able to go to in the past.”
And, as women take on more diverse roles on the farm, it is increasingly important that they represent their industry in leadership roles as well.
“If you have an interest, don’t let gender deter you if it is something you can do and like to do. I have always stepped up and gotten the job done that needed to be done. Gender should not have any effect on that. The sky’s the limit. There are a lot of opportunities out there for women in agriculture for sure,” Mann said. “We need some new female Ohio Corn & Wheat board members, though. We have been trying to fill a few at-large seats on the Association Board and we’d sure like to see some women step into those roles.”
Kelly Harsh, from Delaware County, will move into the role of Ohio Corn & Wheat president on Jan. 1 and Mann will move into the role of chair of the Ohio Corn & Wheat Board, another first for a woman. For Mann though it is much less about the precedent it sets, but simply the next job to be done for this gifted leader, who also happens to be a woman in Ohio agriculture.