Finding a Job

'Grass Ceiling' Hangs Over Female Farmers

Between the 2002 and 2007 U.S. Census on Agriculture, the number of farms owned and operated by women increased by 29 percent to reach a total of 14 percent of all farms.  For the 10-year period from 1997 to 2007, the increase was a staggering 46 percent.

Arguably, there is no other traditionally male-dominated vocation that is experiencing such a rapid increase in participation by women. In absolute terms, the number of female principal farm operators stood at 305,000 in 2007. Over these 10 years the number of male farm operator actually fell by 5 percent, meaning that a woman now manages 1-in-7 farms.

Given that the U.S. Census data collection allows for only one name to be put forward as the principle operator this number is probably somewhat skewed since in the case of co-management with a husband, it is normally the man's name that enters the statistics. In the developing world women make up, on average, over 40 percent of the agriculture labor force.  With the continual replacment of hard physical labor by mechanization farming has become more of an intellectual profession more attractive to women, but female farmers face a "grass ceiling."

Women in agriculture are hindered by a shortage of government support programs and loans through financial institutions. U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Ct., estimates that 43,000 female farmers have been denied more than $4.6 billion in farm loans and loan servicing from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In an attempt to rectify this situation, DeLauro introduced the 2009 Equity for Women Farmer's Act, which unfortunately died before it became law.

This lack of access to funding and government programs is reflected in the 2007 Census data, which had the average male-dominated farm sized at 410 acres with sales of $152,000 per year. By comparison, the average size of a female-operated farm was 210 acres with sales of only $36,000 annually.

It is telling that the states with the lowest number of female farmers, all with less than 10 percent of the total, were North Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa. Farming in these states tends to be dominated by capital-intensive grain and oilseed production with extensive property holdings and costly machinery.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recognizes this inequality and has established the Women Outreach Program under the Farm Service Agency.

Practicing female farmers have also been taking matters into their own hands. Many, if not most, states have a female farmers' movement, such as the Women's Agricultural Network, a collaborative effort with the University of Vermont, or the Michigan-based Women's Agricultural Community. Not only is the movement concerned with food production, but such factors as conservation, sustainability and community are also top issues.

However, the fundamental underlying feature of this movement is to produce food and if you pick apart the agricultural statistics it's easy to argue that women are directly responsible for more than 10 percent of the nation's food.

Compared to the overall picture this may not seem impressive, but look again. Women's 10 percent stake in food production isn't that much less than the total output of corporate or factory farms.

For all their capital-intensity, these corporate farms account for only 15 percent of total U.S. food output.

That means the gap between female farmers and industry giants is only about 5 percentage points and could be narrowing. Between 1997 and 2007 the number of corporate farms grew by only 1.6 percent per year, while female-operated outfits grew at nearly triple this annual pace (4.6 percent).

It is therefore conceivable that with increased access to government programs and finance, female farmers could someday very soon be producing more food for the nation than all the factory farms out there.

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