Posted on September 8, 2010 - by

Women Farmers: An Irresistible Force

“Women Nourish Us” is FRESH’s femme-focused blog series. Every week, we turn to a leading woman in the good food movement for ideas and inspiration. Be sure to check us out every Wednesday for a new write-in. Then pass the post!

Mary Peabody is the Director of the Women’s Agricultural Network as well as a Community & Economic Development Specialist with University of Vermont Extension and most recently as Associate Director of the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development. She has worked in agriculture since 1988 working on business development; feasibility studies; diversification and small farm profitability. She has developed many workshops and courses for small-scale farmers and offers several classes online each year. Her research interests include the sustainability of rural communities, sustainable development and issues pertaining to social and economic justice for women.

Every five years the federal government takes a census of the farmers in the U.S.A. As the findings make their way into the media stream there are inevitably inquiries about the stories these numbers tell. The story I’m most involved with has to do with the rise in the number of women farmers.  As of the last count in 2007, women make up just over 30% of the farmers in this country. This is a 19% increase from the previous 2002 Census of Agriculture.

As these numbers are released I receive calls from journalists around the country interested in the phenomena of women farmers. The most consistent question is “Do you expect this trend to continue?” The short answer is “YES!” Explaining why is a bit more involved. While women are increasingly visible in agriculture, there are multiple factors driving the increase.

The first contributor is the aging of the farm population. Since women have a longer life expectancy it follows that more women will inherit farms as widows. This seems to be a significant trend primarily in the mid-western states but will continue to grow across the country.

The second contributor involves who gets counted.  Women have always been farm partners but given that the Ag Census traditionally counted only one farmer per farm, women were frequently left uncounted. The 2002 Agricultural Census was the first to allow more than one farmer per farm to be identified.

Third, women who have been a consistent part of the workforce are now able to retire with the resources, both personal and financial, to invest in a business startup. Many new women farmers are career-changers who are leaving positions in education, healthcare, banking, and government to pursue their passion for farming.

Finally, increasing numbers of women are graduating college with agricultural degrees and entrepreneurial spirit. These women have the skills, knowledge and passion to pursue farming as a livelihood.

The second most common question I field about women farmers and the Women’s Agricultural Network is, “Why do women need their own program—isn’t it all the same information?” [All the feminists reading this can do a collective eye-roll now.]

We are well into the planning of our second Women in Sustainable Agriculture Conference being  held November 1-3 in Fairlee, VT. As marketing for the conference unfolds we will get a fresh round of these questions. So, for the record, the single biggest reason to offer programs targeting women farmers is that women farmers want them. Women feel empowered by being in the company of other women. They approach business development and planning from a wholistic perspective so while the content might look familiar the delivery is often quite different.

Other reasons to target women farmers include the fact that they are still an under-served population in most agricultural programs. Their farms tend to be smaller and under capitalized. Women tend not to have the same types of networks in place making it more difficult for them to find the right resource at the right time. Women farmers are still more likely than their male counterparts to be juggling family and household management while trying to start a business.

If you are lucky enough to have a woman farmer in your life I hope you will pass along the information about the conference.

To get in touch with Mary or learn more about her work, visit the Women’s Agricultural Network website.

*If you believe in the power of women’s words and our growing sustainable food movement, please spread the word about our Women Nourish Us blog series via email, Facebook & Twitter (http://bit.ly/bDJGtX). If you would like to host a screening of FRESH for your friends or organization, please – be in touch!

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