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U.S. women own it

When we think ‘farmer,’ we often also think ‘male.’ Because it’s men who own the farmland, right?

horizontal image of a farmers wife standing at the edge of a yellow canola field wearing a red checkered shirt looking over the field at dark stormy rain clouds forming in the sky in the summer time

The truth of farmland ownership is changing, especially the picture of who owns farmland in the United States, where the numbers are a bit clearer than here in Canada, and where the shift has been underway for decades.

The questions are simple enough: How many women own farmland in the U.S.? What are the parameters of that ownership? And, do those women face different challenges than their male counterparts?

Although the U.S. numbers are more complete than in Canada, however, that still doesn’t mean there are easy answers.

The exact U.S. numbers can be complicated to parse, says Jennifer Filipiak of the American Farmland Trust. There are two nationwide surveys and “it’s confusing about who is surveyed and what the numbers really mean,” she says.

It’s worth looking briefly at those complications.

Every five years, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) does an agricultural census that has been going on since the 1940s, and this is generally a good data set.

The census, though, “only surveys farmers,” says Filipiak. “So, if you own farmland, but say you rent it out to other farmers and you don’t actually farm yourself, the Ag Census doesn’t include you. You don’t fill out the survey — only farmers. The Ag Census does report out on things like how many landladies are there, and how many landlords are there, but they’re only talking about those people who not only own farms but also farm.”

A complementary set of numbers came out of the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistic Service (NASS) in 2014 called the Tenure, Ownership, and Transition of Agricultural Land Survey (TOTAL), which looked at all the agricultural landlords. So, it’s meant to include all the people who own farmland and rent it out. Some landlords are farmers themselves. They’ll farm some of their land and they’ll rent out some of their land. But the important thing about TOTAL is it’s actually surveying landowners who don’t farm.

Together, the census and TOTAL offer us different slices of the landowner picture. According to TOTAL, for example, “non-operators owned and rented out 31 per cent of U.S. farmland in 2014.” For Filipiak, this means that people who don’t actually farm it own a lot of farmland — they may have a long lineage of familial connection to the farmland, but they may live in another state and be several generations removed.

The big numbers on women’s ownership

How do women farmland owners factor into these numbers?

Bringing several data points together out of the information outlined above, “almost 301 million acres of U.S. farmland,” says Filipiak, “are farmed or co-farmed by women.”

That’s about one third of total U.S. farmland, and it’s just the amount of land owned wholly or in part by American women farmers.

On top of that, another 87 million additional acres are owned by women who do not farm, the so-called women non-operating landowners.

In total, Filipiak says with understatement, women “have influence over a lot of farmland in the United States.” And those numbers seem to be growing, though the data on how farmland demographics are changing is not complete or national.

Regional data does exist for some individual states, though, and in Iowa it is known that “almost half, 49 per cent, of agricultural land is owned outright or co-owned by women,” says Bridget Holcomb, the executive director of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network in the U.S.

What’s more, says Holcomb, “a huge chunk of that land is owned by women aged 65 and up,” which speaks to the aging of farmers and farmland owners more generally.

Filipiak says to this point that “in every ag census, the average age of the farmer has gone up a little bit.” This is important because “some folks estimate that as much as 70 per cent of our product farm and ranching land is going to change hands in the next 20 years. There’s a big transition happening now.” Things are truly in flux.

Many older women are coming into land ownership through inheritance. “Most of the women we work with aged 65 and up inherited the farmland and weren’t actively participating in the management of that farmland until the day their husbands, fathers, or brothers died and suddenly they became owner and manager of a farm,” says Holcomb.

Middle-aged women farmers tend to co-own farmland with their partners and are owners and actively farming. Younger women who are interested in farming, meanwhile, are looking to purchase a parcel of land themselves, says Holcomb.

Acquiring farmland through a bank loan is only one way for a woman to obtain land, says Holcomb, and more commonly she sees women choose a community they want to live in and start asking questions within the community about renting land or even buying a small parcel that may have been broken off the main acreage. So there are alternatives to inheritance or getting a huge loan.

Women around the age of 45 who have built up some savings in a career in the city and want to live a simpler life are who Filipiak sees in the women farmland owners around her — “they buy land and start a farm. They can do that because they’ve had a full career and have some investments.” These are usually small-acre farms — “they’re not farming 500 acres of bean and corn. The only way to get into that kind of farming is if you inherit the land because the money just doesn’t pencil out,” says Filipiak. The kinds of farms Filipiak has seen with the women she works with include vegetable farms, berries and nut trees, with the farms usually diversified — there may be goats that produce yogurt and cheese alongside berry crops.

Some are making money and others probably aren’t, says Filipiak. But don’t sell them short. One woman farmer she knows who is selling USDA certified organic heritage pork at $9 or $10 a pound and selling out every year is definitely making money, she says.

It all helps explain why bankers often have to go back to square one when they see a woman farmer in their office looking for a loan, says Holcomb. “Banks are used to lending to farmers who know exactly how many bushels of corn and soybeans they are growing that year. And when a woman walks in with an idea of their strawberry farm that they also produce honey on, often things get confused.”

Holcomb says, though, that bankers are often willing to work with women once they wrap their heads around the idea, and that women need not be afraid to walk through the bank’s doors in the first place.

That said, women do face hurdles. Even women who have inherited farmland through the death of their husband or father can face particular challenges, says Filipiak.

Among these, the biggest for women landowners comes from not being taken seriously by male farmers.

“Agriculture is a boy’s club and it’s really hard to break into that boy’s club,” Filipiak says.

So, be forewarned. If a woman landowner is taking over a tenant after that tenant has worked for years with her father or brother, they’ll need to work out a new relationship with that tenant, she says, “and that takes time.”

Yet when women approach her, telling her they sometimes feel like they’re being treated as the black sheep of their communities, Filipiak is able to point to the statistics and tell them there are “women like them all over the continent.”

Together, she says, they are changing the face of agriculture.

North of the border

The Canadian Census of Agriculture reports on Canada’s farm operators, but doesn’t report specifically on farmland owned by women, says Cally Dhaliwal, an economist with the strategic policy branch at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Canada’s 2016 census reported that there were 14,003 farms with a female operator or operators. “These farms accounted for seven per cent of all farms in 2016 and four per cent of total farmland area owned.”

There were 63,232 farms with at least one farm operator who was female and at least one who was male, says Dhaliwal.

This group of farms accounted for 33 per cent of all farms enumerated in the 2016 Census of Agriculture, and it accounted for 29 per cent of total farmland area.

Yet because some of this farmland is likely rented, we know how many female farm operators there are in the country, but not necessarily how many female landowners.

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