Women’s evolving farm roles
There are approximately 1 million women in the U.S. who are involved in agriculture, with around 300,000 of them considered “primary operators.” Though those numbers — from the latest USDA Census of Agriculture conducted in 2012 — are down slightly from the previous census taken in 2007, it’s clear women are playing increasing roles on the nation’s farms, especially when it comes to the management of farm businesses.
Women principal operators of U.S. farms account for around $13 billion in annual agricultural product sales, according to the latest USDA Ag Census. Though that’s just shy of 3.5% of total U.S. ag sales, the same group operates about 7% of the nation’s farmland – just short of 63 million acres.
“A lot of times you’re working with the women when it comes to farm finances,” says AgDirect territory manager Carla Mickey. “With my job in equipment financing, I’m dealing with more and more women. They know the finance side of the business very well.”
Though the average female farm operator in the U.S. is 60 years of age – two years older than the average farmer in general -- women primary farm operators have begun adopting technology, namely through an increase in overall Internet access, at a rate higher than the general farm population. Along with that increase in technology adoption, the diversity of women’s roles on most farms is growing as well, Mickey says. That stretches well beyond managing finances and shows the growing importance of women on the nation’s farms.
“They play such a bigger role, whether that’s the finance side, running the machinery or working a job off the farm for insurance reasons. They’re much more involved than they used to be,” Mickey says. “They’re working in a male-dominated career, and they’re very successful at it.”
In her travels around farm country, eastern Iowa farmer, speaker and advocate for women in agriculture Jolene Brown says she meets an increasing number of women who are more than primary farm managers.
“I speak at a lot of Custom Harvester conferences, and I am always delighted at the growing number of women who are running machinery,” she says.
Despite the growing and increasingly diverse roles of women on U.S. farms operations, hurdles still exist, many of which are largely a consequence of gender role stereotypes that lead to women shouldering more of a burden when it comes to managing a farm or ranch.
“Some women farmers and ranchers have mentioned hurdles to performing certain tasks that were essential to their operation not because they were physically or emotionally incapable, but because others would not acknowledge the women’s authority over their own farms or ranches,” says Kristin Reynolds, Ph.D., a food systems scholar at The New School in New York City, and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
One way to positively counteract these types of pressures women face and the stress they cause is peer social networking. Such activity – connecting with other women facing similar challenges -- can yield constructive ways to offset stereotypes and empower women taking the reins of farms or ranches.
“Women’s agricultural networks may consist of a small group of local women farmers or ranchers who get together informally to talk about farm or ranch management, or even more personal issues at their operations. Or, they can be more formal community or regional groups that hold regular meetings for focused discussion of technical or regulatory issues in agriculture,” Reynolds says. “Networks can facilitate farmer-to-farmer information exchange and have been found to be helpful to women who balance the many pieces involved in a sustainable agricultural livelihood. Through social networks, women farmers and ranchers have also gained new perspectives, garnered moral support, and exchanged experience-based advice on farm and ranch management.
“They may also empower women farmers and ranchers by enabling them to recognize their historical and current roles as members and leaders of the agricultural community,” Reynolds adds.
The future of women in agriculture
The evolving roles women play in the day-to-day management on many U.S. farm operations is changing how others in the farm sector – like farm machinery dealers – conduct business.
“Many who sell and service farm machinery have learned that it is the woman who has the details of the farm finances, and she is keen on knowing return on investment,” Brown says. “She also understands if it fits into the cash flow. She is the one who will take out the emotion to be assured it is a good business decision. And, she may even be colorblind!”
In future editions of the USDA Census of Agriculture, the data on women operating farm operations will likely continue to climb, as will the diversity of work done on those farms, Mickey says.
“I think we’ll continue to see more women involved with the management of the farm. I don’t see that coming to an end,” she says. “I think there’ll be even more women active in both operating machinery and on the finance side.”