#PonytailAg Campaign Brings Women in NC's Agriculture Industry into the Spotlight

ponytailag logoI’ve been asked a few times where the #PonytailAg campaign began, and to be honest, it started with a man. My boss, Scott Johnson, vice president, Agriculture Sector Development at NCBiotech, challenged me during my annual goals review to find a project I was passionate about that would fit within our Center’s mission, suit my skillset, and promote our industry. He suggested a program that focuses on the women of North Carolina’s ag tech industry.

As with many initiatives at the Biotech Center, I set out to partner with some of NC’s key agriculture-centric organizations to brainstorm how we could turn this idea of a women-focused program into a reality. I invited Beth Farrell from NC Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, Marlowe Vaughan from Feed the Dialogue NC, and Lynda Loveland from NC Farm Bureau Federation to NCBiotech for a discussion on possible ideas. We quickly discovered that while our individual organizations represent a different sector of NC’s agriculture industry, together we cover the value-chain that makes up NC’s number one industry.

We had all been hearing about how the number of women in agriculture is dramatically increasing and agreed that in some sectors they are growing, but in others, they’re just becoming more visible. From scientists developing higher quality seeds and soil health researchers to greenhouse operators, economic developers and chefs, there are so many jobs throughout the agriculture industry that women occupy. Marlowe said it best when she noted that women have always been a key part of agriculture, but now, in this day of transparency, women are coming to the foreground as the face and voice of agriculture. These women are the ones that will inspire next generations and hopefully continue in North Carolina's deep-seated agricultural foundation.

Shirley Hyman Parker Crystal Kyle Susanna Byrd Hawkins Jessica Wilburn-500 px_0.jpg
Shirley Hyman-Parker, Crystal Kyle, Susanna Byrd Hawkins, Jessica Wilburn

And so the seed sprouted. We were all on board to educate our NC community about the full value-chain of agricultural opportunities while highlighting the many women that support it.

We hired Tabletop Media, a small agency with experience in North Carolina agriculture to help execute our strategy. Equipped with talented producers and videographers, Tabletop Media helped us develop a social media campaign that would feature raw, transparent (well maybe save some stumbles or tongue twisters for a blooper reel), first-hand interviews and filmed tours featuring leading women from these ag businesses. This has allowed us to take our audiences to places they don’t always have the opportunity to see. And draw attention to the women making them successful.

With our own itineraries in hand, we asked our social media audiences who they wanted to see. Nominations came flooding in, which helped confirm many on our list and added a ton more. Calls were made, regional schedules were set, and we were off and running.

So far we’ve visited the Piedmont Triad Region, the Eastern Region and almost completed Research Triangle Park.

We’ve interviewed farmers like Lorenda Overman of Overman Farms in Goldsboro, Jill Sink of Songbird egg farm in Denton, Tami Purdue of Sweet Pea Urban Gardens, and Renee McPherson of McPherson Farm in Mebane. We toured food manufacturers, distributors, distillers and vintners like Courtney Tellefsen of the Produce Box in Raleigh, Stacy Ham Thomas of Yamco and Covington Sweet Potato Vodka, and Diana Jones (and Chloe) of Jones von Draehle vineyard in Thurmond. In Winston-Salem, we visited Niki Farrington of Niki’s Pickles and head chef at Silo Bistro Bar, and Kayla Clark and Laura Kaiser of the Interfaith Food Shuttle Farm and Produce Stand in Raleigh. We even toured Marlowe’s hog farm in Lagrange.

Leigh Kathryn Bonner
Leigh-Kathryn Bonner

We’ve spoken with commodity reps like Kelly McIver of the NC Sweet Potato Commission and Lisa Prince of the NC Egg Association. We’ve visited the NC A&T State University Farm where we met Shirley Hymon-Parker, Odile Huchette and Andrea Gentry-Apple. We’ve learned about interdisciplinary programs like the Executive Farm Management program described to us by Michelle Grainger of NC State University and the AgroMedicine Institute shared by Director Crystal Kyle, a veteran and current goat farmer along with her colleague, Jessica Wilburn, a steer farmer and nurse.

We’ve discussed food safety with Anita MacMullen of NCDA and Michelle Pace-Davis of Pace Family Farms, and the importance of community for women in agriculture with Susanne Byrd Hawkins a local farmer and member of the Caswell Women in Ag group, myself, Crystal, Jessica, and Shirley.

We’ve learned more about the economic development efforts in NC, our community of investors and entrepreneurs through Leigh-Kathryn Bonner of Bee Downtown, Karen LeVert of Ag TechInventures, and Laura Lee of the Economic Development Partnership of NC in Cary. We wrapped this past week by interviewing NC’s newest recruit, Cristine Morgan of the Soil Health Institute.

But I have to say my favorite so far, was Mary-Dell Chilton, formerly of Syngenta, but forever known as the godmother of ag biotech.  She is always an inspiration and I can’t wait to share more of her story. 

Whew! And that’s just in three regions!

After several weeks of teasing behind-the-scene photos and factoids across our social media accounts using #PonytailAg, we are releasing our first video of the campaign this week.

Michelle VonCannon and Mary Dell Chilton
Michelle VonCannon and Mary-Dell Chilton

The outpouring of support for this campaign has already been overwhelming, just reconfirming what an extraordinary community we have. At the end of this six-month campaign, I would love to take this beyond the borders of NC to connect with women on a national or even international level to share, learn, support, lift up, communicate, unite and grow together.

Hopefully, at my next goal review, my passion for this program and the resulting impacts will be obvious and NC will know more about its agriculture and the women who drive it. More importantly, that our nation recognizes that NC produces, attracts and promotes strong, intelligent women that are changing the face and voice of agriculture. Oh, and I will have learned to use Instagram.

Join us on the #PonytailAg tour on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

For questions or more information, contact:
Michelle VonCannon
Agriculture Program and Event Manager

Agriculture Sector Development

919-549-8858 | michelle_voncannon@ncbiotech.org

Tue, 09/17/2019 - 15:51