Tammy Gray-Steele tells Moneyish she wants her nonprofit to function as “a national funding tool” for any woman trying to grow or raise local foods
This story is part of “Ceiling Smashers,” a series in which successful women across industries tell Moneyish how they broke down professional barriers.
Tammy Gray-Steele wants to help women shatter the grass ceiling.
The self-styled “agri-business diva,” raised on a Wewoka, Okla., farm, founded the Oklahoma City-based nonprofit National Women In Agriculture Association in 2008 to help women develop their farm businesses and boost minority presence in agriculture — “and save youth in the process.”
Her outreach group — which has 45 chapters in 22 states, including subchapters, according to Gray-Steele — offers typically older, rural, non-tech-savvy women farmers manual labor and help with USDA contracts; aims to develop homegrown food-security systems in food deserts; educates youth through agriculture; gets young women certified as childcare providers and teachers; and gives young men jobs in an effort to keep them in school and away from crime.
The share of women-operated U.S. farms rose from 5% in 1978 to 14% in 2007, according to a Department of Agriculture report; between principal and secondary operators, women made up about 30% of U.S. farmers in 2012. But 50-year-old Gray-Steele, whose experience includes a legal degree from NYU Law School, an MBA from Southern Nazarene University and legal work on Wall Street, argues women farmers don’t always get the respect they deserve — nor the USDA funding. (That apparent disparity isn’t unique to farming: A 2017 Caltech analysis, for example, found male-led startups were nearly twice as likely as female-led ones to get funding from male investors.)
“I think that there (is) more priority given to men farmers than to women farmers, particularly black women farmers,” Gray-Steele said. “And also knowing that there are different socioeconomic disadvantages for minority people, it’s hard for us to compete for grants.” Gray-Steele, who currently operates her program on a $200,000 USDA minority outreach grant, now seeks to fund an outreach program under the Farm Bill to involve at-risk youth and minority women farmers in agriculture.
The NWIAA is shattering “the traditional stereotype of men owning and operating and doing sustainable work on the land,” Gray-Steele told Moneyish. To that end, she wants her group to function as “a national funding tool” for any woman trying to grow or raise local foods — and, in turn, promote health and economic development in the community. “She deserves to receive some sort of financial resource help from the government, period,” she said. “Here I am, a woman with all these degrees and 10 years out in the community, and I still have the hardest time landing a traditional USDA grant.”
“It’s hard, but I know if we get the right recognition … something will happen that is going to change America,” Gray-Steele added. “We are going to have more women in the forefront running agricultural programs in leadership positions.”
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