Female farmer standing in greenhouse

The lives of both of my grandmothers revolved around their farms, their families and their church communities.

My grandmothers were “women in ag” who considered themselves “farm wives.” My grandfathers were the “farmers,” laboring long days but needing my grandmothers’ hard work to ensure their farms survived and were successful.

I’m not sure either of my grandmothers got the credit they deserved. Did they have equal say in the farm’s financial decisions? Could they have opened a line of farm credit in their own name?

I don’t think my grandmothers got enough recognition for their valuable contribution to the farms’ production, whether it was washing the milkhouse, feeding calves, butchering poultry, cleaning eggs, managing customers and accounts, growing food, helping with hay and harvest, putting three meals a day on the table, and all the other farm chores that had to get done.

But that was in the past, and women’s lives have gotten better since then. Look at all the accomplished women now working as farmers or in various roles in agriculture today. They have more choices than my grandmothers did.

Women can own farms and make the big decisions. Women today can be in ag leadership roles, in teaching, research, advocacy, business and policy. So, yes, the ag world has come a long way in the last 100 years.

However, if you pay attention, there are still many doors closed to women in farming. There are anti-women sentiments everywhere in a stereotypically male profession like farming.

There are very low-paid, part-time ag jobs off the farm done primarily by women who deserve better pay.

There are male professors in ag departments discouraging female students from pursuing their dreams.

There are farm equipment salesmen refusing to speak seriously to solo female customers.

There are women speaking up at farm meetings, but their voices are disregarded.

There are capable ag women being turned away for promotions because they are female.

There are women doing outstanding ag research being passed over for awards and grants because of their gender.

And some women can’t get to important ag meetings because they can’t get support to help with child care and meals for a couple of hours.

We are not done working toward women’s equal treatment in agriculture. There is much more to be done.

Female farm producers are the fastest-growing demographic in U.S. agriculture. I think that came as a surprise to many people when USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service census data from 2007 to 2017 showed female farm producers growing to more than one-third of the total number of producers nationally.

There was a realization that women in agriculture were being undercounted and underrepresented. So USDA began using the term “women in ag” for that demographic. The agency found that women in agriculture had not received the same focus or access to resources that men in agriculture had.

Stating that we no longer need to use the label “women in ag” is a subtle way of undermining that demographic of female farm producers.

Alternatively, naming and focusing on “women in ag” can be a powerful force for building girls’ and young women’s confidence.

Temple Grandin, the famed animal behaviorist who has engineered humane livestock chutes for meat processors, said in a 2018 speech at Colorado State University that she sees girls and young women today lacking confidence.

She explained why having confidence is important, noting that there is a trend for girls to drop out of male-dominated professions such as engineering and agriculture. She mentioned how one creative female student turned down a full scholarship because “she didn’t think she could do it,” even though she had the skills.

Women have different experiences with farming than men. Women also operate farms differently. When making decisions, women apply a different focus to the broader needs of children and family, extended family and community.

Women-owned farms tend to be more diversified. Women work differently with livestock, and they look at farm systems more holistically. Women are often dedicated to methods of farming that are focused on the health of future generations as well as the natural environment.

Many female-focused farm meetings and groups have sprung up recently, in part to address the unique needs of women in ag. Besides providing networking opportunities, education, a chance to be heard and to build confidence, these groups give farm women a chance to learn from other female producers like themselves. USDA started a blog about women in ag, featuring stories about talented farm women.

There are Women in Dairy conferences, Pennsylvania Women in Ag Network events, Women Rooted in Ag discussions, and a Dairy Girl Network for young farm women. Many programs have started as a result of the term “women in ag.”

Women in ag bring unique abilities to the farming industry. The term “women in ag” lets women know they have equal opportunity and support, and that it’s OK for them to be included in all aspects of the world of farming.

Anne Harnish is the food and family editor for Lancaster Farming. She can be reached at 717-721-4428 or at aharnish@lancasterfarming.com


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