It wasn’t surprising that the Women in AgriBusiness Summit brought hundreds of women working in all areas of agriculture together in Denver last week. In the sold-out event of over 750 people hailing from 43 states and 14 different countries, there were perhaps a half dozen men in attendance.

What might be surprising, however, was the conference’s enormous focus on emerging technology, innovation, and the change coming at neck-snapping speed. There were seminars on blockchain and big data, discussions of gene editing and emerging management practices, and demonstrations of new technology and different ways to measure things.

But maybe the focus on the changing landscape of agriculture shouldn’t be surprising either.

“Every time we make another technological leap, we even the playing field for women in production agriculture,” proclaimed Julie Maschhoff—co-owner of The Maschhoffs LLC, the largest family-owned hog production network in the country—during the Female Producers Panel.

“We’re lucky in ag, particularly in the livestock side, because we have seen a lot of really cool innovation and I think that’s why we’ve seen more women take on more roles on the production side than in the past.”

Following the panel, several examples of new production technologies were on display. Sally Haynes, chief scientist of animal behavior innovation and welfare for Australia’s Agersens, showed attendees eShepherd, a new effort at remote cattle movement and virtual fencing. The smart-collars might allow ranchers grazing cattle on wide-open lands like the Australian outback to do more targeted grazing without fencing costs and labor.

Claudia Roessler, worldwide industry solutions director for agriculture of Microsoft, came on stage wearing a pair of mixed reality glasses. She outlined how the up-and-coming technology could help farmers assess all the unique elements of their fields at a glance with overlaid data without the need for excessive paperwork and expertise.

Liz Hunt, sustainable solutions account manager for Syngenta, demoed a dashboard that utilizes artificial intelligence. The system can aid in the selection of the best seed varieties and crop treatments for each individualized square inch of a field to meet specific production goals.

Change is a must

While innovation was celebrated on its own merits throughout the conference, the undertone of necessity was strong. Not only was innovation positioned as beneficial to women in ag specifically and for ag overall, but as a requirement for the future of farming.

“There’s some stuff that’s going to have to change,” Dr. Temple Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, said simply in her keynote address to the conference.

Some of the things Grandin outlined as needing to change were creeping production problems. Increased lameness and liver abscesses in fed cattle, and severe lung issues in pigs due to genetics and management issues were key issues for her, both from a productivity and ethical perspective. She also called out gestation stalls in hog operations, which have been widely rejected by consumers in recent years.

The changes in consumer sentiment was central to Elizabeth Sloan’s talk. Sloan, CEO of consulting group Sloan Trends and contributing editor of Food Technology magazine, detailed to conference attendees how the consumer marketplace is radically different today than what it was even a few years ago.

“Last year, in the United States, almost one third of all dinners were completely, 100 percent prepared outside of the home,” she gave as only one of many examples. “Now that really says something if you’re selling whole meats.”

Consumers and their desires are not the only thing changing. Earlier, during a session on big data in ag, Debra King, chief information officer of Corteva AgriScience, reminded conference-goers that “the world is just going to be a different place in 2050.” She pointed out well-known details like 9 billion people world-wide and 70 percent of them living in cities, but she also pointed out other changes that will impact ag.

“With climate change, in 2050, the crops we grow today might not be viable.”

“All of this is really about disruption,” she went on. “This is a revolution and disruption is happening in every industry. Every industry is ripe for disruption.”

She added that, because of a world of changing demographics, consumer demands, environmental considerations, and technologies, “we have to sell forward agriculture and we have to do it really quickly.”

Resistance and opportunity

Of course, not everyone is keen on change.

“There’s a tug of war going on here between the forces of change and the old guard on the production side,” Grandin said. “The industry’s got to let the more progressive people win or we’re going to be in trouble.”

She speculated that a lot of the resistance to change comes down to two things: people “staying in their silos” so they don’t see differences that might suggest problems in their operation; and getting defensive when others point out there might be problems. On this latter point, she gave an example from a conference call she was on recently.

“We were talking about moving the industry forward and then this live side guy—boy, I could just hear those hackles going up like he almost felt like he was being personally attacked. ‘Well, I’ve raised the animals this way all my life, so it can’t be bad.’”

“It’s hard for someone who never leaves their silo to see what’s going on outside,” she continued. “I hate this inside and outside the box thing—it’s kind of a cliché—but it’s really true.”

However, most of those who discussed the changes facing the industry and their disruptive potential characterized the situation as an opportunity.

“We’ve got disruptive innovation that can create entirely new markets,” summarized Jane Stevenson, vice chair of the consulting group Korn Ferry, in her introduction talk.

King, speaking specifically of the influx of big data into agriculture, called the current situation “a huge opportunity to transform.”

“All these business models are going to pop up where we didn’t think of them before, and it’s not going to just be about the food.”

Speaking specifically about the food and consumers’ changing relationships to it, Slone said it was a dramatic time in the food world.

“Be open to these things, they’re not necessarily forcing something else out—there’s a lot of room,” she said. “Anything goes in today’s market.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ editor

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