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'Grass Ceiling' Overhangs Surge in Female Farmers

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Female farmers are very quietly gaining ground and causing what might be the biggest, quietest shakeup of a male-dominated industry. But a "grass ceiling" limits their government and financial supports.

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Female farmers are very quietly gaining ground and causing what might be the biggest, quietest shakeup of a male-dominated industry. But a "grass ceiling" limits their government and financial supports.



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Credit: Let Ideas Compete on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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(WOMENSENEWS)--If you think you're seeing more women running farms in the United States, you're right. Female farmers have indeed been gaining huge ground.

And despite some stereotypes, this isn't an enlarged version of growing vegetables in a home garden either. Female farmers run dairies and cattle ranches and grow wheat, corn, cotton and soybeans, just for starters.

Between the 2002 and 2007 U.S. Census on Agriculture, the number of farms owned and operated by women 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. Over these 10 years the number of male farm operator actually fell by 5 percent, meaning that a woman now manages 1-in-7 farms.

The above statistics tell only part of the story though, 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 man'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 women as farm operators nearly doubles to 26 percent. Given similar social and general farming dynamics in both countries, it is generally thought that a comparable pattern of co-operators exists in the United States.

In the developing world the numbers are even higher, as women make up, on average, over 40 percent of the agriculture labor force.

A Perfect Storm

Over the past generation or two, farming has become so much more of an intellectual profession with much of the hard physical labor replaced by mechanization. Perhaps farming has been a positive "perfect storm" for women as they moved out into all walks of life. It is arguable that farming as a profession may be unique in its natural evolution to nicely match female skills.

But female farmers aren't in clover, not yet.

A closer look at the statistics show that female farmers face a "grass ceiling."

Like grass that is mowed and thus unable to reach its growth potential, women in agriculture are hindered by a shortage of government support programs and loans through financial institutions. As a result, female farmers, in many instances, cannot reach their growth potential as producers of food.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Ct., estimates that 43,000 female farmers have been denied more than $4.6 billion in farm loans and loan servicing from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In an attempt to rectify this situation, DeLauro introduced the 2009 Equity for Women Farmer's Act, which unfortunately died before it became law.

This lack of access to funding and government programs 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 a female-operated farm was 210 acres with sales of only $36,000 annually.

It is telling 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.

Targeting the Inequalities

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recognizes this inequality and has established the Women Outreach Program under the Farm Service Agency.

Practicing female farmers have also been taking matters into their own hands. Many, if not most, states have a female farmers' 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 with 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 and if you pick apart the agricultural statistics it's easy to argue that women are directly responsible for more than 10 percent of the nation's food.

Compared to the overall picture this may not seem impressive, but look again. Women's 10 percent stake in food production isn't that much less than the total output of corporate or factory farms.

For all their capital-intensity, these corporate farms account for only 15 percent of total U.S. food output.

That means the gap between female farmers and industry giants is only about 5 percentage points and could be narrowing. Between 1997 and 2007 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, female farmers could 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.

Maurice J. Hladik grew up on a farm in western Canada and was an active farmer into his early adult years. He earned two degrees in agricultural economics from Canadian and U.S. universities before becoming an agricultural diplomat in New Zealand, Germany, China, Thailand and South Korea. He also served a decade in the private sector as an executive of an agriculture-based company with an international reach. More information on his new book, "Demystifying Food from Farm to Fork," can be found at http://foodfarmfork.authorsxpress.com/.

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