SAO PAULO, Brazil — The endless fields of soy and corn outside Norma Gatto’s window sent her into a panic. Harvest was coming, and her husband was dead, killed in a work dispute with a farmhand.

Gatto, who grew up around agriculture but had never planted anything herself, was left to raise her three boys and manage their burgeoning farm in Brazil’s heartland on her own.

I’m doomed, she thought. 

“It was the worst moment of my life,” she says. “I had to be Mom and Dad, help heal my children’s pain, and do something I had never done before — [farm]work.”

Two decades later, Gatto, 60, is one of Brazil’s most powerful female farmers, managing 44,000 acres of soy, corn, beans and cattle. For years she was the only female farmer in southern Mato Grosso state, Brazil’s soy country. Now, she speaks to thousands of women hoping to break into the country’s $300 billion, male-dominated agricultural industry. 

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Brazil is a global agricultural powerhouse, the world’s top producer of soy, coffee, beef and oranges. But its traditionally machista culture has long kept women out of the industry.

That’s starting to change. A record 31 percent of farms in Brazil are managed by women today, triple the number in 2013, according to Brazil’s Agribusiness Association.

Female farmers say they still have a tougher time than their male competitors accessing training and credit, and they suffer high rates of violence and discrimination. Now, they’re banding together to try to bridge the gap.

Known as Brazil’s “cattle queens,” they gather once a year to discuss various subjects: workplace harassment, technological advances, macroeconomic policy. The meeting has grown from a few hundred women in 2016 to a sold-out event of 2,000 this month at a Sao Paulo conference center sponsored by major agricultural companies.

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Surrounded by pink tractors and orchids, they attended lectures on the impact of the U.S.-China trade war on soy prices, and sustainability in agriculture.

Kelly Andrade, a 38-year-old grain farmer from Minas Gerais state, says she came to be inspired by women who have succeeded in a man’s world.

“It can sometimes be isolating to work in your corner of Brazil and you don’t know what is happening in the rest of the country,” she says. “It is great to exchange information, learn what other women are trying in their farms, what is working and not working for them.”

When Andrade first started working on her father’s farms, she says, banks would call him to check whether she had his permission to secure loans.

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Such experiences are not uncommon. Corteva, an American agricultural company, surveyed female farmers around the world last year. Nearly 80 percent of Brazilian women reported having experienced discrimination, compared to 52 percent of their American counterparts.

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“You have to learn to deal with discrimination, to be respected and have a voice,” Andrade said.

Women from conservative areas of the country say the meeting was the first time they have been able to put the discrimination into words. Rosemeire Santos, 47, a Corteva executive in Brasilia, launched a year-long training program in 2018 on entre­pre­neur­ship and female empowerment for 20 up-and-coming farmers. At first, she says, none of the women admitted to having suffered discrimination. But by the end of the course, several did. 

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“Women are not ready to talk about discrimination in agribusiness,” she says. “They are used to seeing their situation as standard.”

As the number of women in the industry grow, they also face growing rates of violence. Last year, 482 women were victims of violence in rural conflicts in Brazil, four times the number in 2017.

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Lawyer Ticiane Figueiredo is the author of “Agro Women,” a book on female farmers in Brazil.

“When you are demanding gender equality in what has traditionally been a masculine space, men get threatened and think that we are trying to destroy them. But they need to support that effort,” she says. “Since men are still the ones in a position of power, if they don’t let us in, we won’t break the glass ceiling.”

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Conference regulars say it has given them a community they can rely on all year. They stay connected through group texts and emails, where they share legal advice, information about prices and new farming technology. When times are tough or crops are not performing as expected, they offer each other emotional support.

Kiara Motter, a 31-year-old from northern Brazil, went looking for an extra push of encouragement as she prepares to take over her family’s grain farm. 

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“I’m not a huge fan of these events just for women, but it’s a challenge: I’m the only woman at most of the meetings I attend,” she says. “Here, we don’t feel so alone.”