During the month of March, we’ve had the opportunity to celebrate National Ag Day and Women’s History Month, which is only appropriate as we look at the family heritage of agriculture and particularly the influence women have had and are continuing to make in the agricultural world.
The Family Influence of Agriculture
National Ag Day was established to celebrate the contributions agriculture makes in all of our lives whether we are directly connected to it or not.1 Today, most Americans connect to agriculture through farm visits, farmer’s markets or what’s on their table. Only a mere 2% of the population have a direct link — a little different than my family lineage of dairy farmers. Despite what we hear about the size or ownership of farms, farming is still a family affair.
Of the two million farms in the United States today, 98% are still family operated,2 ranging from small farms with less than $250,000 in gross sales to very large farms with over $500,000 in gross sales. And though the population of farmers has dwindled, our agriculture production has not decreased. We are growing more with less land. For example, one acre of land can grow a variety of crops, including 50,000 pounds of strawberries or 2,784 pounds (46.4 bushels) of wheat.2 Today, it is estimated that one farm feeds 166 people annually, a significant increase from the approximate 25.8 people in 1960.2
The Changing Face of the Farmer
When I was growing up, the typical farmer was male, which is still the majority, but the number of women principal farm operators continues to climb. Today, women make up 36% of the total number of U.S. farm operators. That is 1.2 million female producers, a 27% increase since 2012.3 Also, 56% of all farms have at least one female decision-maker.2
Frankly, if farm wives like my mother were a representative sample, the number of women partners and decision makers over the years would be higher than these statistics reflect. My mother, now 95 years of age, was still living on the family farm until a year ago and was truly a partner during the 51 years my family ran a dairy. While her peers were slowing down, my mother’s responsibilities — from baling hay to raising calves and keeping the farm financial records — expanded in her late 50s through her early 70s until my father’s retirement.
Today, the rate of women entering the field of agribusiness and operating farms is increasing. According to the USDA, women-operated farms are smaller in size and are more likely than the average farm to produce high-value crops, such as fruits, nuts and vegetables. For those women operating large farms, their operations are likely to include horses, poultry and eggs.4
However, I have several colleagues that defy that description. Farmer and registered dietitian Jennie Schmidt manages the pesticide control business, vegetable crops and grapes for her family farm, while other colleagues are actively involved in the dairy, pork and beef production on their respective farms. Today, many of the land grant universities’ agricultural programs have a female majority population and the respective colleges of agriculture and food are led by female deans like Dr. Nancy Cox with the University of Kentucky. Major commodity organizations and farm related organizations are being led by women such as CEO Erin Fitzgerald of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Association, CEO Polly Ruhland of the United Soybean Board and President and CEO Krysta Harden of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. These are just a few examples among many who will continue to change the face of farming and agriculture.
As a multi-generation farm owner, I have witnessed the evolution from the inside and on the sidelines, valuing opportunities to collaborate with colleagues along the way. Today, not only can women “bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan” they can manage the bacon from farm to table … true “she”ros reshaping the future of food and agriculture
1. Resources for Promoting Ag Day, Agriculture Council of America
2. Fast Facts About Agriculture & Food, American Farm Bureau Federation
3. “Agriculture Census Data Shows the U.S. Has More Female Farmers Than Ever,” Pacific Standard Magazine, by Emily Moon, April 12, 2019.
4. “2017 Census of Agriculture: Female Producers,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, ACH17-11/October 2019.