Sorrel Brown: Women in Agriculture – Taking the Knife and Living the Dream

Newsletter Issue: 
May 2016

Dr. Sorrel Brown
Dr. Sorrel Brown was the first woman field agronomist hired by Iowa State University Extension in 1980. 

Being first isn’t easy. In the 1970’s there weren’t many women working in agriculture. Sorrel Brown, Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Program Evaluator at Iowa State University and CenUSA Bioenergy Co-PI, was one of Iowa's early pioneers. She was the first field agronomist hired by Iowa Extension and in June, will retire after 35 years of service.

In the 1970’s breaking through the glass ceiling in agriculture required a unique set of skills. 

“My first job was at the Arizona State University research farm and I was young and totally green,” said Brown. “The farm manager took one look at me and said, ‘You must be Sorrel, we’ve been waiting for you.’ He took me to the swine barn, where they were castrating piglets – with a pocket knife. After about 10 minutes they handed me a knife and said ‘your turn.’

She earned their respect, by not blinking.

“I took the knife,” Brown said, laughing. “They never expected me to do it, but I did. It helped to establish my credibility.”

The experience taught her to be creative in solving problems and to always look for opportunities, traits she explained that have been useful during her career.

One of her early graduate assistant jobs was working as a scientist for a power plant in Arizona that wanted to expand; it was located on land owned by the Navajo reservation. Her job was to help collect data for the environmental impact statement. For two years Brown traveled across the state, monitoring about 200 sites on the reservation, a vast wilderness, taking soil samples and analyzing them on a gas chromatograph.

“I had a big dog, a malamute and when I’d check into the motel, I’d walk around the parking lot with him,” said Brown.  “I was never bothered. You have to just figure out how to make things work.”

Chevron brought Brown to Iowa in 1977 as an agronomist, putting together educational programs and demonstration plots for sales representatives in Iowa and Missouri. For an agricultural professional, working in the Midwest was terrific.

“It was the mecca for agricultural employment,” she said.

After 3 years, she learned of an opening as an Extension crop specialist based in central Iowa and became Iowa State Extension’s first woman field agronomist, working with county agents in 12 counties.

“They had had women in the lab, but never in the field,” said Brown. She was the first woman to work with Iowa’s county agents, putting out plot work and conducting educational programs. 

In 1988 she took a different position with Iowa State Extension, managing communications for the 12 state north central region. She developed the first search engine for the regional center and later proposed a fee-based communications unit that enabled the office to support itself.

“It’s no big deal now – everyone has to bring in money,” said Brown. “But in the 90’s it wasn’t an accepted strategy. Within 3 years, we had clients from all over the country and generated our own revenue; enough salary support to support 4 or 5 staff.” Undaunted, she also earned a PhD, while working full time.

In 2005, Iowa State’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension came to Brown looking for help with evaluation techniques. In a tight budget climate, they needed to better document the work – crop production, horticulture, dairy, livestock, natural resources – being done.

“My value was in my experience,” said Brown. “I had been in the field for 10-12 years, knew what field specialists did and could help them measure and document their impacts.”

She brought this evaluation skill set to CenUSA Bioenergy. As an Extension and Outreach Co-PI, Brown has worked to measure the project’s outreach and extension impact.

“A lot of wonderful work has been done [with CenUSA] and we are exploring ways to keep it going,” said Brown. “It has increased awareness of what’s involved in growing perennials for biomass, answered production questions and identified the infrastructure that has to be in place for farmers to take the risk.”

Brown is planning to retire in June and looks forward to using her creativity in new ways. She has been tapped to help work with Iowa’s World Food Prize, sometimes called the “Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture,” and wintering at her family home in Scottsdale, Arizona.