Women Farmers – Breaking Through the “Grass Ceiling”

A little-appreciated phenomenon is underway as the roles women play in farming continue to increase. Between the 2002 and 2007 U.S. Census on Agriculture, the number of farms owned and operated by females increased by 29 percent to reach a total of 14 percent of all farms. For the 10-year period from 1997 to 2007, the increase was an astounding 46 percent. Arguably, there is no other traditionally male-dominated vocation that is experiencing such a rapid increase in participation by women. In absolute terms, the number of female principal farm operators stood at 305,000 in 2007. Interestingly, over these 10 years the number of male farm operator actually fell by 5 percent, meaning that a woman now manages one of every seven farms.

The above statistics tell only part of the story as the U.S. census data collection allows for one name to be put forward as the principle operator. In the case of co-management with a husband, it is normally the male’s name that enters the statistics. In Canada, where the question is asked differently to capture all those engaged in the ownership and management of a farm, the number of females as farm operators nearly doubles to 26 percent. Given similar social and general farming dynamics in both countries, it is generally thought that a similar pattern of co-operators exists in the U.S.

While the above is encouraging, a closer look at the statistics show that women farmers face a “grass ceiling.” Like grass that is mowed and thus unable to reach its growth potential, females in agriculture are handicapped compared to their male counterparts when it comes to accessing government support programs and loans through financial institutions. Hence, female farmers, in many instances, cannot reach their growth potential as producers of food. For example, Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Ct) estimates that 43,000 women farmers have been denied more than $4.6 billion in farm loans and loan servicing from USDA. To rectify this situation, Ms. DeLauro introduced the 2009 “Equity for Women Farmer’s Act,” which unfortunately died before it became law.

The above situation is reflected in the 2007 census data, which had the average male-dominated farm sized at 410 acres with sales of $152,000 per year. By comparison, the average size of female operated farm was 210 acres with sales of only $36,000 annually. Also telling is the fact that the states with the lowest number of female farmers, all with less than 10 percent of the total, were North Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa. Farming in these states tends to be dominated by capital intensive grain and oilseed production with extensive property holdings and costly machinery.

The USDA recognizes this inequality and has established the Women Outreach Program under the Farm Service Agency. Even more impressive is the effort by practicing women farmers to take matters into their own hands. Many, if not most states, have a women’s farmer movement, such as the Women’s Agricultural Network, a collaborative effort with the University of Vermont, or the Michigan-based Women’s Agricultural Community. Not only is the movement concerned about food production, but such factors as conservation, sustainability, and community are also top issues.

However, the fundamental underlying feature of this movement is to produce food. Given that the average female-operated farm has about one quarter the revenue of their male counterparts, an analysis using the above statistics would indicate that about 4 percent of the food produced in the U.S. comes from farms with a designated female as operator. However, as stated above, there is evidence that there are many farms where co-management with a spouse is the norm. In these instances, half of food produced would arguably be the result of female input. Given the increased management and labor resources in such farms, expectations are that these farms would be every bit as productive, in fact probably more so, than the average male-dominated unit. Following this logic, the 15 percent of farms with joint male/female operators would mean that more than 7 percent of the food produced nationally on such enterprises would be the fruit of a woman’s input. All told, this means that women can take credit for more than 10 percent of the food produced in the US.

Compared to the overall picture this may not seem impressive, but when one considers that according to the USDA, corporate farms (aka factory farms) account for a surprisingly low 15 percent of total food output, the role of women takes on an interesting dimension. It is particularly noteworthy that over the ten years between the 1997 and 2007 census, the number of corporate farms grew by only 1.6 percent per year, while female-operated outfits grew at nearly triple this annual pace (4.6 percent). It is therefore conceivable that with increased access to government programs and finance, females who are already producing close to 75 percent as much food as the giants in the industry will someday very soon be producing more food for the nation than all the factory farms out there.

Bottom line, without much fanfare, women are making an increasingly significant impact on U.S agriculture.

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