Every month, USDA shares the story of a woman in agriculture who is leading the industry and helping other women succeed along the way. In honor of International Women’s Day, today we hear from Kelly Stange, an Agricultural Counselor for Germany, Austria, Hungary & Slovenia with USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service who started her career on a Missouri family dairy farm and working in University Extension.
To learn more and connect with other women leaders in agriculture across the country, we encourage you to visit https://newfarmers.usda.gov/women-in-ag. If there is a leading woman in agriculture you’d like to see on the blog, please send us your suggestions at AgWomenLead@usda.gov.
- When did you first become interested in agriculture and what inspired your career? Can you share your story with us?
I grew up on a dairy farm in Washington, Missouri and from an early age my sister and I worked alongside our parents. Then I did a student exchange in 1993 to Germany that confirmed to me that I wanted to learn foreign languages, travel and generally get off of the farm to see the world. My parents really impressed upon me that I needed to give back to agriculture and wanted me to study at the University of Missouri College of Agriculture. At the age of 18, I didn’t see what travel and learning languages had to do with agriculture. Then I met Dr. Jan Dauve, a professor of Agricultural Economics and a lifelong mentor and friend, who explained that food is a global business and I could have an exciting career in agribusiness. Eventually, I spent a year studying Agricultural Economics in Stuttgart, Germany, later did an internship in London, and researched my master’s thesis topic in Bonn, Germany. Little did I know that these experiences all set me on a path to work for FAS – a career that is the perfect combination of travel, using languages for work, and promoting U.S. agriculture to the world.
- Your career has taken you to many places around the world. What have you learned from your travels?
I have seen that all over the world women are often doing a tremendous amount of work in agriculture, but may not be getting the credit for that work. This really concerns me and I want to do more to have women’s voices heard. Women need to promote themselves! Even in Germany, the senior leadership is typically run by men and the women are in the background.
- What is your favorite part of your job?
My two favorite things have been visiting USDA-supported capacity building projects and seeing our trade promotion efforts directly impact a small or medium sized company’s sales overseas. Our McGovern-Dole projects have done incredible work to train farmers in developing countries, for example, by teaching them how to increase yields by irrigating their crops, increasing production and subsequently raising their incomes. Trade promotion is another pillar of our work overseas and making connections between buyers and sellers that result in sales is immensely satisfying. My favorite kind of success is one that you can connect to real people, so hearing that our exporter guide helped someone get into a market or that a few phone calls helped a company sort out their questions on regulations makes me really happy.
- Have you had any personal challenges as a woman in ag? If so, how were they overcome?
I have shown up at official meetings and the foreign counterpart has flat out stated that they were expecting someone older or they thought a gentleman would be joining the meeting. The only way to deal with this is to smoothly assure them that I am the USDA representative and perfectly capable, willing and happy to do the job.
- How do you balance your personal and professional life as an international woman in ag?
Working overseas has some special challenges when it comes to balancing personal and professional life. When you are travelling for work but you get a call from the school that you need to pick up your sick child, things can get complicated. I was fortunate enough to marry a patient and up-for-adventure person who has a portable career as a writer. We both travel for work, so we have to communicate and coordinate schedules very carefully, but it works. I have also received great encouragement from colleagues on navigating taking a family overseas and still pushing yourself to perform at the highest level possible. I think anytime women can support each other it really builds the community.
- Who are your role models?
It might be an unconventional choice, but Dr. Temple Grandin has been my hero in the ag world for years. In this job you seem to find yourself touring slaughtering facilities more often than you might expect and it is easy to see the impact of her work in slaughterhouses all over the world. She really is an inspiration to think outside of the box.
- What advice do you have for young women interested in agriculture & international relations? Or what’s the best bit of advice you’ve gotten from someone?
Don’t be shy about asking senior people for advice – they love to share their opinions! And don’t be afraid of a little serendipity – I started out after grad school working in University Extension on pig manure, so not a very glamorous beginning. That boss helped me network to get a job in Washington as the staff economist analyzing…pig manure. I was starting to get worried that this would become a career theme! But I stuck it out and eventually got hired at USDA working on the beef portfolio. What a relief, but I wouldn’t have gotten to USDA if I had not taken those other jobs.
- What do you see as the future of agriculture, and specifically, agricultural women in agriculture?
If we want to see more women as decision makers and leaders in agriculture, it is our responsibility to mentor and create opportunities for them. I lead the Federal Women’s Program in the U.S. Embassy in Germany (with two colleagues) to find ways to empower our female federal colleagues working in international relations. I also throw all-women networking parties to connect the amazing women I meet in my role as Agricultural Counselor. The parties are a lot of fun, but it is also a space for women to discuss issues and encourage each other to go for that promotion or take the next step in their career. I firmly believe that we are each responsible to look for opportunities to help women get to the next level.