“I think dialogue with farmers is incredibly important.”

Tessa Avermaete, Agricultural Economist

Tessa Avermaete lives near Leuven, the pre-eminent university town in Belgium. She studied bioengineering with a major in agricultural economics, but discovered her love for farming on her grandparents’ farm. From her position as an agricultural economist and member of several management and advisory boards, she has a privileged view on the role of women in agriculture. And that was a good reason for Women in Ag to go talk to her!

Being a farmers granddaughter, Tessa spent a lot of time on the farm in her youth. Among the tractors and fields, her love for the industry grew. Her father’s work trips to exotic countries further stimulated her curiosity. Becoming a farmer was nog something Tessa wanted, and so she specialised in the economics behind the industry.

WiA: Tessa, please introduce yourself!
Tessa Avermaete:
 As a bioeconomist I am affiliated with KU Leuven, where I mainly do management for European Commission projects. I also sometimes write project proposals and then search for suitable partners to build a consortium, in collaboration with my colleagues. Project management involves being responsible for the day-to-day follow-up of the work, and being the contact for the European Commission. I also do policy preparation work, translating research findings from colleagues into insights policymakers and stakeholders can work with. Exactly what happens to those notes is in the hands of politicians.

I am also chairwoman of the Local Food and Agriculture Advisory Council Leuven, or VLAR. With this organisation, we aim to unite many different parties around (local) food and agriculture in and around the city. This means that there are often many different parties around the table, each with their (different) perspectives on sustainable food and agriculture. As chairwoman, I have to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard.

WiA: What exactly is agricultural economics?
TA: Agricultural economics is the study of the economics behind the agricultural industry. This has to do with prices of products and services, but also with policies and the choices made in the industry. It is also about power relations in the agricultural sector and in food systems. Part of the study is devoted to the earning models of farmers, both locally in Belgium and further away, in Europe and the world. But agriculture is closely intertwined with many other sectors, such as the food industry and retail. Perhaps the term food economist suits me better.

For my doctoral research, I was a partner in a European project on innovation in the food industry. After my PhD, I made a conscious decision to stay at home with my family for 2 years. Afterwards, I went to work at KHLeuven, today called UCLL. In the health care and technology department, I was surrounded by dietitians, nurses, midwives, …  This was very engaging and informative! As a result, I never see the agricultural industry disconnected from the bigger picture, and this interconnectedness is very important for a future agricultural policy. There are many links in the chain that must be taken into account if the system is to be sustainable. Knowing about these other links helps to better assess developments in the food system.

WiA: What is a “woman in agriculture”, to you?
I meet female entrepreneurs from the industry on a regular basis and I have nothing but admiration for them. There are regions, such as Flanders, where the agricultural industry remains a predominantly male one, even though – fortunately – more and more women launch into a project or acquisition on their own here, too. And one thing I notice is how these women have a different approach. It’s that “feminine touch” that makes their entrepreneurship in the agricultural industry different.

But women in agriculture are not only the women on tractors or taking care of the animals. They are also the women in consultative bodies and at the policy level. Those are still very much men’s worlds, especially in Europe. Even though the added value of a good gender balance has been evident for some time in many other industries. I think it’s a good thing that more and more women are present in our industry.

Wia: You have been active in the broad agricultural sector for about 20 years. Have you seen any changes for women in the industry during that time?
TA: Certainly in academia, I’ve already noticed big differences. When I was a student, there were (almost) no female professors in our faculty. That has seriously improved. When I participate in the public debate or act as a panelist today, I hope to inspire young female colleagues in the process.

More and more other women have also risen in agricultural organizations throughout the years. This has certainly brought about some necessary changes. In recent years, the feminization of the industry has greatly accelerated!

Wia: How do you see the future for women in agriculture?
TA: That in itself is a very fascinating but philosophical question. In my immediate surroundings, I often see the woman on the farm also has a second job. A farmer cannot work without a partner who truly supports him or her, though. A farm is part of the family. And there, I notice that it’s the women who take on different roles far more easily than the men. One example: there are a lot of farmers who are very present on social media, these days. Well… it’s often the woman on the farm who makes the videos, who takes pictures, who communicates online, introduces new activities for the company and reflects on creating added value. Their approach is often perceived as “softer,” but no less professional. I have had the pleasure of meeting a lot of fantastic young female farmers over the last few years. In addition to producing delicious and nutritious food, they greatly contribute to building a positive image of our industry.



This article was published in Women in Ag Magazine 2022-002.

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