“Although women do the majority of work in agriculture at the global level, elder men, for the most part, still own the land, control women’s labor, and make agricultural decisions in patriarchal social systems.” - Carolyn Sachs

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

- Michigan
- United States
- Worldwide

Who Are Women in Agriculture?

United States

Women in agriculture in the United States are an important, diverse, and often overlooked component of food systems. Recently there has been a growing acknowledgement of the important roles women play on farms. However, the fact remains that the commercial agricultural realm within the US is still hugely dominated by a white male workforce that is traditionally in charge of decision-making and operation. Consequently, both white and non-white women are at a disadvantage, as they lack access to resources and the network required for the capital-intensive work of conventional farming. As of 2002, only about 5% of commercial farms in the US were operated by women, according to the National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS).

Small-Scale Farming

Many of the farms operated by women in the United States are small-scale farms, earning less than $50,000 annually. According to Judith Sommer in Robert Hoppe's 2001 report on US family farm characteristics, women-operated farms "are generally smaller, both in sales and acres, than male-operated farms, and female operators control a relatively small share of resources used in agricultural production. Because of their small size relative to male-operated farms, female-operated farms are more likely to have negative net farm income and thus are less likely to be in a favorable financial position. Like most households with small farms, households of female operators rely heavily on off-farm income. Largely because of low farm earnings, average total household income of female-operator households is less than the average for male-operator households and below the average for all US households" (Sommer 2001:50).

Feminism and Farming

Ms. Magazine's 2004 article by Elaine Lipson discusses the connection of organic food production to feminism. Entitled "Food, Farming, Feminism? Why Going Organic Makes Good Sense," the article describes how non-organically produced food affects women's bodies. "Women take the brunt of the many toxic chemicals used in conventional agriculture. We have greater fat stores than men, and that's where fat-soluble chemicals finally reside." Lipson states that it is especially the female baby-boomer generation that has potential and power to demand better quality food and to become a significant economic force in the agricultural economy. This is because many are the primary care-takers of their families.

Feminism is often thought to have a conflict of interest with the maintenance of a farming community. Berit Brandth's article "On the Relationship Between Feminism and Farm Women" discusses this dynamic relationship, and some of the reasons for the conflict. Brandth discusses how feminism is often viewed by women farmers and their communities as a single movement that is anti-farm and anti-family, and overly hostile toward men. This "popular conception of feminism has been regarded as destabilizing and as a threat to many of the social relationships that are valued in rural life" (Brandth 108). Many women believe feminism is not for them due to its academic character and that it does not have "much to offer them in terms of economic security and cultural approval" (Brandth 108). Berit Brandth has written extensively on feminism and farm women internationally.

Minorities, Women, and Alternative Agriculture

Due to the difficulty that women have in trying to establish themselves in conventional agriculture, women farmers are increasingly turning to alternative and sustainable agriculture. Women who are Hispanic, Black, and Native American may be especially disadvantaged in commercial agriculture due to the historical and structural racism in farm organizations and federal and state laws in the United States.

The United States, like many other countries, was founded on agriculture. Foundational agriculture regularly and violently extorted land and labor from Native Americans. Africans were imported as slaves as labor resources and their labor formed the backbone of the southern economy. Black American families continued to struggle for their freedom from bondage labor on white farms long after the abolition of slavery. According to Haney and Knowles (1986):

"The sexual division of labor within black households diverted the energies of women from the staple crop economy (that is, work that profited white men) to the family domestic economy (that is, work on behalf of their own families). Whites terrorized black wives and mothers in an effort to extract as much labor as possible from the adult female population. Thus violence against black women revealed that the economic interests of whites and black people's commitment to family continued to be competing, mutually exclusive priorities, just as they were under slavery. American history gave new meaning to black women's response to the age-old imperatives of human sustenance" (27).

The number of African American farmers in the US peaked in 1920 when they accounted for 14.3% of farm operators. Today, only 1% of US farm operators are African Americans (Sommer p. 40). This uprooting of African Americans from US farm life, since their peak in numbers, is attributed to the general decline of small farms, land erosion, boll weevil infestations of cotton, New Deal farm programs that benefited white landowners, post-war cotton mechanization, repressive ethnic relations, and the lure of northern jobs (Lobao and Meyer).

Native American patterns of land ownership and use differed drastically from the colonialists. White colonists wanted Native Americans to take up farming as a way to become civilized. Janiewski (1986) describes how colonial assumptions about gender roles and "true womanhood" underlined colonial efforts at subduing Native American populations through agriculture. In 1910, Indian agricultural fairs offered agricultural education for Native American men and home economics education for Native American women. According to Jawiewski, "Such activities systematically excluded Native American women, as they also did white women, from access to agricultural education even though women owned a significant portion of Indian land" (43). Mexicans and Mexican Americans were and continue to be employed as low-wage laborers without benefits or protective laws. Because migrants are often excluded from the census, their full contribution to agriculture and working conditions often remains invisible to policy makers.

Research on other ethnic groups as farm operators, rather than laborers, is limited. "Hispanic and Native American farmers are usually considered in light of non-farm changes contributing to high rural poverty among these groups" (Lobao and Meyer). In the United States, whites now comprise 97.5% of farm operators, Hispanics 1.5%, African Americans 1%, and Native Americans 0.5.

The Limitations of Relying on Statistics

The Census of Agriculture allows for only one self-defined operator per farm. Robert Hoppe reports that:

"Listing only one operator per farm has contributed to underestimating the contribution of US women to farm work and farm management. For example, on operations where both husband and wife participate in running the farm, the management role of one or the other is disregarded, most likely the woman's. Evidence from Canada, where information on shared management of multi-operator farms is now collected, indicates that the woman's role is most likely to be disregarded" (39).

Useful Information and Articles:

To honor the role of women in agriculture, to celebrate the power of women's networks to create change, and to plant the seeds for future work, the Women's Agricultural Network (WagN) is holding the Women in Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Vermont in October of 2005. The conference will include a variety of events and speakers with different backgrounds, interests, and goals.

The USDA and the Economic Research Service published a 1998 status report on "Minority and Women Farmers in the United States." This report discusses the decline of black farmers in the US and compares the increases and decreases in the number of farms operated by minorities. It also describes the characteristics of minority and women farmers in the US.

What are the various roles of women farmers? NYFarmNet answers this question and more in an issue of their newsletter devoted to women in agriculture. Included in these articles are data and information on roles of women on farms, the multi-tasking involved in being a woman on a farm, financial programs for women in agriculture, and issues of self-esteem in rural communities.

What exactly is 'sustainable agriculture?' What does it mean to farm for a sustainable future? The US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, and the National Agricultural Library have compiled an explanation of terms, definitions, and concepts surrounding the movement in the US toward a more sustainable agricultural future.

American Women's History: Farm Work and Life is a research guide provided by the Middle Tennessee State University Library. Included in this extensive resource are a bibliography on women in agriculture, historical overviews, journals, library catalogs, associations, discussion groups, archival collections, digital collections, and oral histories, all devoted to women in agriculture and the rural landscape across the US.

The personal stories of seven women who have ventured into the relatively male-dominated realm of the modern cooperative business world are captured in the article, "A Few Good Women," by ruralwomyn.net. In the article these women recount how they attained the leadership positions they now hold within the agricultural community, the challenges they face, and the fulfillment they achieve from their work.

The January 2004 issue of the newsletter of The International Federation of Agricultural Producers focuses on women in agriculture in the US and worldwide. This special issue focuses on the needs of women in agriculture, as their situation differs drastically from men in agriculture. Included is a section of recommendations for increasing women's status in the agricultural sphere, such as providing financial resources to those in agriculture, making sustainable development a goal, increasing knowledge and training, and increasing the representation of women in agriculture in farming organizations.

The US Department of Agriculture and the National Agricultural Statistics Service have created a map showing the statistical representation of percent of farms with female principal operators in the United States.

Mary Janes Farm, a magazine, seller of organic products, and Idaho-based farm, takes pride in its useful Website, which includes sample articles from the magazine, a virtual tour of the farm and surrounding areas, and a discussion board to connect farm women.

The National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture is a network of diverse groups whose mission is to shape national policies to foster a sustainable food and agricultural system -- one that is economically viable, environmentally sound, socially just, and humane. The organization focuses on changing policy in the areas of organic farming, rural development, social justice, and genetic engineering in order to promote a more sustainable food system.

Cynthia Vagnetti is a visual anthropologist who has developed her own style of social reportage. She documents the human condition through her combination of photography, interviewing, and participation. Her project entitled "Gifts and Graces of the Land" documents the lives of American farm families who have strived to shift the agricultural paradigm toward more sustainable methods of farming and ranching. The Digital Journalist has published the project online. Vagnetti and Jerry DeWitt have compiled the photographs and individual histories into a book entitled People Sustaining the Land. Vagnetti has also released a documentary entitled "Voices of American Farm Women." Through the use of her photography, oral history, and video, the project documents American farm women's dynamic relationship with the land and farming. It also discusses women's involvement in sustainable agriculture, biodiversity, connections between farm and food, entrepreneurship and education, and social responsibility.

The Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) is a non-profit North American organization dedicated to building strong, sustainable, local and regional food systems that ensure access to affordable, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food for all people at all times. They seek to develop self-reliance among all communities in obtaining their food and to create a system of growing, manufacturing, processing, making available, and selling food that is regionally based and grounded in the principles of justice, democracy, and sustainability.

State-based Organizations:

Alaska Women in Timber is a group of women who strongly believe in the need for an active, organized approach to protecting Alaska's forest resources.

California Women for Agriculture is a Web-based community for women in agriculture in the state of California. The Website's main message is the goal of giving women and all people involved in agriculture a forum for voicing their issues. The site also has a community message board.

Illinois Agri-Women is the self-declared voice of Illinois agriculture with the goal of developing leadership skills for its members to succeed in the agricultural community.

Kansas Agri-Women is an affiliate of American Agri-Women. Their motto is "From Producer to Consumer with Understanding."

The mission of Kentucky Women in Agriculture is to empower women through education, involvement, and action.

Women's Agricultural Network of Maine enables women and other underserved people to successfully own, operate, and support agriculturally related enterprises through the use of their membership services, support, and networking; education and training for women and other underserved people in agriculture; outreach and advocacy on women's and minority issues in agriculture; and scholarship and training accessibility.

Minnesota Agri-Women offers opportunities to become more involved in Minnesota's agricultural community.

Innovative Farmers of Ohio is a membership-based, farmer-led, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting, through research, education, and community-building activities, an agriculture that preserves and strengthens the economic, social, and environmental wellbeing of Ohio's farms, farm families, and rural communities, and protects and improves the health and productivity of Ohio's lands and waterways. The organization is currently in the process of creating a women in agriculture community for the state of Ohio.

Texas Agri-Women is a community of women who are interested in educating themselves and the public about issues important to agriculture.

Washington Women for Agriculture have as goals: uniting women for agriculture; working with other organizations to promote a better understanding of agriculture, its work, and its importance; and informing the agricultural community about current issues.

Wisconsin Women For Agriculture is a non-profit agricultural advocacy organization dedicated to the promotion of and education about agriculture.

US Women in Agriculture:

The Women on Farms U.S. Research Initiative is an interdisplinary group of students and faculty at Pennsylvania State University who are working to promote the well being of and better understanding of the issues relevant to women in agriculture. The website serves as a resource, offering important information such as maps, surveys, papers, articles, and the results of their research.

American Agri-Women is a national coalition of farm, ranch, and agri-business woman's organizations. They serve as a communications link between its members, discussing agricultural issues on a national scale. Here you will find information on their national conference, affiliated organizations, their newsletter, and other news.

Women's Agriculture Network (WAgN) -- a collaborative effort of the University of Vermont Extension System, UVM's Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and the US Department of Agriculture -- works to increase the number of women owning and operating profitable farms and ag-related businesses within the US. The Website contains information on their programs and educational activities, a newsletter, literature reviews, information on the annual conference, and links.

Women in Agriculture is the USDA's resource for women involved in agricultural activities in the US. The Website offers links to the Third International Conference on Women in Agriculture and other USDA organizations.

Ruralwomyn is dedicated to providing an outreach, support, and networking base for rural women and their nonprofit organizations and grassroots activities. Included on the Website is a discussion board and chat room, which serve as two of the many ways in which ruralwomyn.net has been working to provide an outlet and communication network for women across rural America. One of the many goals of the site is to enhance and support women's opportunities to live in rural areas and to participate in lifestyles that are healthy and sustainable for rural women and girls. This site is an excellent resource for rural women, women in agriculture, or anyone interested in this perspective.

References

Brandth, Berit. 2004. “On the Relationship Between Feminism and Farm Women.” Agriculture and Human Values 19:107-117.

Effland, Anne, Robert Hoppe and Peggy Cook. May 1998. “Special Outlook Report: Minority and Women Farmers in the U.S.”

Haney, W.G. and J.B. Knowles, eds. 1986. "Making 'The Invisible Farmer' Visible." In Women and Farming: Changing Roles, Changing Structures. Pp. 1-15. Boulder and London: Westview Press.

Janiewski, D. 1986. "Making Women into Farmers' Wives: The Native American Experience in the Inland Northwest." In Women and Farming: Changing Roles, Changing Structures, edited by Haney, W.G. and J.B. Knowles. Pp. 15-35. Boulder and London: Westview Press.

Lipson, Elaine. 2004. “Food, Farming…Feminism? Why Going Organic Makes Sense.” Ms. Magazine.

Lobao, L. and K. Meyer. 2001. "The Great Agricultural Transition: Crisis, Change, and Social Consequences of Twentieth Century US Farming." Annual Review of Sociology 27:103-125.

Sommer, Judith E. 2001. "Female Farm Operators and Their Farms." In Structural and Financial Characteristics of US Farms: 2001 Family Farm Report, edited by Robert A. Hoppe. Resource Economics Division, Economic Research Service, US Department of Agriculture. Agriculture Information Bulletin No. 768.

 

Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems at MSU