A million women farmers

To get big numbers of women farmers, the U.S. looks to small farms

According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, the number of female-operated farms in the U.S. more than doubled between 1982 and 2012. On top of that, if you add in the number of women who participate on male-led or jointly led farms as primary and secondary operators, the U.S. now has nearly one million female producers, accounting for 30 per cent of American farmers.

Krysta Harden, deputy secretary at the USDA, is the first to point out that women have always been deeply involved on the farm… and that it is about time we noticed.

“Women have been involved in agriculture forever,” says Harden. “I think we’re just now recognizing their role, starting to talk about it in a different way.”

Harden has been working hard at the USDA to ensure women get the recognition they deserve.  One way she is doing this is by asking census questions differently — trying to get at who is involved on farms and ranching operations and in which roles. She describes these efforts as making sure we’re really getting what’s happening on the ground.

“In the past,” Harden says, “it was just assumed that it was a male principal. That’s how the question was asked.”

But now, the statistiticians are trying to catch up, Harden says. “We are looking at ways to make sure we really do reflect what’s happening in the country.”

Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden stands with farm owner Ms. Yetemwork Tilahun on Tilahun’s dairy farm near the city of Mojo, about 50 miles south of Addis Ababa, Ethopia.

Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden stands with farm owner Ms. Yetemwork Tilahun on Tilahun’s dairy farm near the city of Mojo, about 50 miles south of Addis Ababa, Ethopia.
photo: USDA

We need both

Many women now view farming as a viable career option. The job does require some physical muscle, but that is not all, says Harden. “You have to be a good thinker, planner and business person to deal with your financials and marketing.

“You’re seeing women come out of college wanting a career in agriculture,” she adds. “There are also young women who inherit land who decide they want to be the one to farm it. Agriculture is evolving and changing. As our older generations get older, they’re looking for what’s next for their land. They’re saying, maybe a woman will come instead of a man.”

But Harden is quick to point out that the world needs both male and female farmers who are committed to growing food. “We need them to help feed our growing world… With about one per cent feeding the other 99 per cent of us, we need a pipeline of men and women.”

And with the average age of U.S. farmers at 58, the need for both is getting urgent.

The inheritance question

“We want to make sure that women who are inheriting land — widows, daughters, nieces, anywhere in that line — have a place in agriculture,” says Harden. “We need them. We want to work with them and help them continue that great tradition.”

Clearly, that view is gaining momentum. The number of women principal farm operators has nearly tripled since the census started to track gender in 1978, starting at five per cent that year and rising to nearly 14 per cent today.

Robert Hoppe, one of the USDA report authors, has noticed that the biggest segments operated by women are those that specialize in raising animals. “Most of the sales are in poultry and eggs,” says Hoppe. “That’s where the larger women-operated farms tend to specialize.”

As of 2012, about 19 per cent of poultry and egg farms were operated by women, plus 28 per cent of other livestock (mainly horses, but also 27 per cent sheep and goats farms and about 11 per cent beef operations).

Sandy Winokur, owner of Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard shows Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden olive blooms during her visits to the Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard in Elemendorf, TX.

Sandy Winokur, owner of Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard shows Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden olive blooms during her visits to the Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard in Elemendorf, TX.
photo: USDA/Melissa Blair

Is a female farm a small farm?

For Hoppe, getting gender balance into the USDA surveys also meant looking at having to put more emphasis on locating and contacting all farms, regardless of size.

“Before, there were indications we were missing substantial numbers of very small farms, those with less than $5,000 or $10,000 in sales,” says Hoppe. “There was a concerted effort to locate and interview very small farms… women tend to operate smaller farms.”

Supporting any and all women in agriculture is a widely shared goal, but two U.S. initiatives stand out as leaders — because their goal is leadership.

One initiative is steered by a group of 10 women from across the nation, led by Sherry Saylor, a Buckeye, Arizona farmer who grows cotton, wheat, alfalfa, and barley plus some other rotational crops.

Saylor runs the farm with her husband, while also working off the farm as a school counsellor. “There are about 80 per cent of farm women who do work off the farm,” Saylor says. “I am one of them. I’m also currently serving as the chair of the American Farmer Women’s Leadership committee. That’s almost like a second job, but one that I love.”

The committee engages women by offering opportunities to develop the communication and leadership skills needed to become effective spokespeople for agriculture.

Being in a school, Saylor is also working with women to take agriculture to the classroom, setting up programs and training sessions, and providing them with ways to promote agriculture.

“We also have a function to encourage women who are actually doing the agriculture,” says Saylor. “A lot more women are getting into farming, I think due to the farm-to-table movement. More women are jumping into actual farming and not necessarily exclusively as partners with their husbands — they sometimes find a niche market or manage a smaller property.

“Many women want to get into it,” Saylor continues. “It’s near and dear to their hearts and they just need training on how to manage a business. I encourage women to become involved in agriculture, whether it’s in production agriculture, in advocating for agriculture, or  in science.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Krysta Harden visits vendors at the Public Market in Rochester, NYU.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Krysta Harden visits vendors at the Public Market in Rochester, NYU.
photo: USDA/Chris Stewart

Saylor believes women have a strong connection with the land and are very interested in the processes used to grow food, and they see the importance of combining that love of agriculture with the business side of it.

In fact, Saylor feels women even have an edge because they have a tendency to be risk takers. “I think, with women, if they believe in a product and they think it’s going to make their life and the lives of women in this country better, they will promote it,” she says. “They will be willing to step in. They appear to be more entrepreneurial.”

The value of mentoring

Meanwhile, the USDA’s Harden has launched Ag Women Lead, a mentoring network for women in all aspects in the industry.

“This is a way for women to communicate with each other, to share information, to share best practices, to encourage each other, and to really make sure women are connected,” says Harden.

This began as a personal project, where Harden would collect contact information from women she encountered through her work. These women would often ask if Harden could link them with other women who could provide them with advice. Other women would sometimes tell Harden that they felt they had acquired skills and insights that they could share with new women farmers.

“So, we formed this network and we already have almost 800 women across the country involved,” says Harden. “We look at all aspects of the industry, with everyone coming together to say, ‘you’re not alone, we’re here to share and to grow, to encourage each other.’”

Harden feels women are networkers by nature and she is pleased to have found a way that the USDA can help connect women with other women in the field. And the network is not limited to the U.S.  There are women farmer members from around the world, including Canada.

“We’d love to have more women from Canada involved,” says Harden. “Some of our states are probably closer to Canada than other parts of the country, so they’ll have a lot in common. Again, it’s just about helping, promoting, encouraging, supporting, and being there for other women, wherever they are. We’d certainly welcome them and encourage them to join the network.”

For more information about Ag Women Lead, visit [email protected].

Women farmers around the world deserve targeted support, says USDA deputy secretary Krysta Harden, seen here with dairy farm owner Ms. Yetemwork Tilahun on Tilahun’s farm near the city of Mojo, about 50 miles south of Addis Ababa, Ethopia. Photo: USDA

About the author

Rebeca Kuropatwa's recent articles

explore

Stories from our other publications

Comments