Who Are Women in Agriculture?
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
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"
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Women in Timber is a group of women who strongly believe in the
need for an active, organized approach to protecting Alaska's forest
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.
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,
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.
offers opportunities to become more involved in Minnesota's agricultural
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.
is a community of women who are interested in educating themselves and the public
about issues important to agriculture.
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
Women For Agriculture is a non-profit agricultural advocacy organization
dedicated to the promotion of and education about agriculture.
US Women in Agriculture:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.