Meet Francie Tolle: A Female Farm Policy Powerhouse

Francie Tolle shares her insight from working in all three sides of agriculture policy: advocacy, legislation and regulation.

Article By Jennifer Blackburn

As part of this issue’s theme celebrating women, it is our honor to include Francie Tolle, current director for the Product Administration and Standards Division at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency. Tolle, along with her husband Chuck, two sons and daughter-in-law, farms in Grant County, Oklahoma where they raise grain sorghum, wheat, soybeans, cotton, sesame and cattle.

National Sorghum Producers’ first introduction to Tolle was during the 2008 Farm Bill when she worked for the Oklahoma Farmers Union. Working together, implementation guidelines were developed with the Farm Service Agency for the SURE program, which allowed farmers to still qualify for SURE if they planted a ghost crop of sorghum behind a failed first crop of wheat or cotton—a significant policy win for sorghum.

Tolle also worked as director of the Oklahoma Wheat Growers Association, agriculture liaison to former Congressman Brad Carson, state executive director in Oklahoma for the FSA and now in her role at RMA, giving her perspective from all three sides of agriculture policy through advocacy, legislation and administration and regulation.

Tolle is a sorghum producer, a staunch ally for farmers and ranchers and a strong leader for our industry. Let’s get to know her more…

As a female leader, why are you proud of the work you do?

You know, as far as being a female in this industry, I do recognize that there aren’t a lot of females. However, there are more now, which I’m happy to see. But on the flip side, I’ll say I didn’t notice it a lot because my dad didn’t treat my sisters and I any differently. He always was of the mentality ‘you can do whatever you want to do,’ and there weren’t any limitations based on being a female or male. So my expectations were there were no limits for me.

I recognized that there were a lot of women in the ‘80s and even into the ‘90s that were in the ag industry that really laid the foundation for people like me. Because of the work they did and because of the upbringing that I had, it’s just been a wonderful experience. But we need to keep that going. I think recognizing women and what they’ve done is a good way to do that.

How has your upbringing and awareness from your own farm benefitted you serving agriculture producers through your various roles?

Talking to producers is what I am most comfortable with because that’s what I grew up with. My dad farmed, my mother never had a job off the farm, but she certainly was one of the hardest workers I ever knew. Our family dinners consisted of talking about farming and going to the co-op talking to producers. That’s natural for me.

What has helped me probably most is being an actual producer myself. Going to RMA, I’ve used crop insurance. I know how it works. I know how it doesn’t work. Whether you’re on the advocacy side or you’re on the implementation side working on particular issues, the knowledge that you bring with you as a producer is invaluable.

What has it been like to work with National Sorghum Producers over your career?

Your leadership really gets into the weeds of looking at numbers, looking at data and seeing what’s really needed in order to help farmers be profitable and what makes sense. What I enjoyed most about [working with NSP] was the detail and the data your organization brought to the table. When you have that kind of data and information and you walk into a congressional office armed with that, plus producers who are actually growing the crop and are constituents of those congressional members, that’s powerful. That’s what producers have to do to be successful and to be heard. It doesn’t matter what the issue is. Grain sorghum growers do an excellent job, and I was happy to be there [during the 2008 Farm Bill] with them because it represented everything that I am.

Besides fixing sorghum loan rates, what are some other projects you have worked with National Sorghum Producers on?

Right now RMA is working with National Sorghum Producers on a research and development project directed from the 2018 Farm Bill to analyze irrigated insurance for sorghum in areas where water is declining. We’ve contracted an outside study in regard to a lot of different factors that go into developing crop insurance to come out with recommendations on how we can improve the program, working directly with grain sorghum growers. Once we’ve got the study back, we’ll be meeting with [NSP] leadership to look at recommendations. The main point is to go out and get additional research and the information that would help us develop a better program and at the same time protect the integrity of the program.

What is a career highlight for you?

I think during the 2008 Farm Bill, working through the ACRE and SURE programs and being able to provide real examples from a producer level on how potential programs work at the farm level was a career highlight for me. Another would be working with the ARC and PLC programs from the 2014 Farm Bill, explaining those programs to producers through my role at FSA and helping them make a choice.

Who were your greatest mentors and what advice would you give to other women aspiring for a career in agriculture policy and/or regulation?

Everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve just been blessed that I’ve worked with people who have trusted me and allowed me to do the work that needed to be done. As a supervisor now, I try to treat my employees the same way. To utilize their knowledge and entrust them to go do what needs to be done. But my biggest mentor was my dad.

As for advice, it boils down to commitment. When you are driven in your career, you’re committed. There are a lot of women out there that are very committed to agriculture and have a lot of good experience as far as production agriculture, policy and regulation. Every one of those ladies that I can think of right now have a very, very strong commitment to agriculture. That’s what it boils down to. You have to be committed.


This story originally appeared in the Fall 2020 Issue of Sorghum Grower magazine as a feature.