Women in Agriculture, By the Numbers | Civil Eats

Women in Agriculture, By the Numbers

Big Ag is big business–and big profits. And when anyone raises questions about the billions of tax dollars lavished on the largest industrial growers of corn, soybeans and other commodity crops or points out the harm that these perverse incentives do to the environment, Big Ag’s lackeys lash out.

But bullying your critics and worried consumers is not always the best public relations strategy. Sometimes you need to cultivate the softer sell.

That must be why commodity growers’ lobbies have launched fresh campaigns aimed at polishing their tarnished reputation. How? By showcasing female farmers as the fresh, new faces in their public relations toolbox. The latest campaign by the National Corn Growers Association and the United Soybean Board is titled Common Ground.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Common Ground “will attempt to put a more feminine, friendly and empathetic face on large-scale agriculture by using women farmers to appeal to suburban and urban grocery shoppers–most of whom are women themselves.” As the paper reported:

“We’re a unique voice because we’re also moms. We’re the ones getting the food on the table,” said Chris Wilson, president of American Agri-Women and lifelong farmer, who is originally from Illinois. “We make a good connection with consumers.”

But as usual, even the most cursory analysis of Big Ag’s PR claims shows that they obscure a very different reality. Environmental Working Group (EWG) took a look at the board membership of five of the largest organizations representing corn, soybean, wheat, cotton and rice growers. They also happen to be the five crops that together collect 90 percent of federal farm subsidies.

What we found is that female representation on these boards amounts to a staggeringly meager 1.3 percent. By comparison, women on the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s (NSAC) Organizational Council actually outnumber men (55 percent).

The new $30 million public relations campaign by Big Ag groups would just as soon keep these numbers out of sight. We believe they deserve center-stage attention.

2010/2011 Board Membership at Five National Commodity Organizations

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MaleFemaleTotal% Male
National Corn Growers Assoc. 1411593.3%
American Soybean Assoc. 4514697.8%
National Assoc. of Wheat Growers 5115298.1%
National Cotton Council 92092100.0%
US Rice Producers Assoc. 23023100.0%

And since we’re keeping score, the leaders of all three national organic food and agriculture organizations are women: The Organic Center is lead by Joan Boykin, the Organic Trade Association is helmed by Christine Bushway and Maureen Wilmot runs the show at the Organic Farming Research Foundation.

Looking deeper into the gender statistics around farming, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that women now operate 14 percent of the nation’s 2.2 million farms. More important, though, is how these women farm the land and conserve natural resources. The Organic Farming Research Foundation reports that 22 percent of organic farmers are women. They, and their fellow male organic farmers, follow practices that  conserve soil and biological diversity by rotating crops and avoiding synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, hormones and genetically-modified seed.

The Foundation also notes that “women… are far more likely to allocate land to vegetables and herbs (male = 33 percent, female = 47 percent of acreage). They are likewise far less likely than men to devote land to field crops (male = 44 percent, female = 28 percent of acreage).” Women are also more likely to manage smaller farms. The average farm held by women is only 40 acres, while the average spread farmed by men is more than three times as large–149 acres.

It’s not surprising that in the 1960s one of the leading voices against traditional farming practices was Rachel Carson. She spoke out against the long-term effects of misusing pesticides and in 1962 published the groundbreaking “Silent Spring.” Before losing a battle with breast cancer, she called for new policies to protect human health and the environment.

EWG echoes her call today and urges farmers and non-farmers alike to question how our food is grown, not who is showcased in a public relations campaign. In this cause, we are delighted to be in the company of women like Leigh Adcock of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) in Iowa, as well as Temra Costa, author of Farmer Jane:  Women Changing the Way We Eat. Both are in the vanguard of the movement to build “a more healthful, sane, and sustainable food system for present and future generations.”

“It’s clear to those of us who have been working in the movement for many years that women have always been the primary drivers behind the sustainable agriculture and healthy foods movements,” Adcock said in an email to EWG. “WFAN will be working even harder this year to make sure that the voices of these women are heard in the media and in positions of leadership at all levels.”

Big Ag can showcase women in its new public relations campaigns, but the reality is that women really have almost no voice on the boards of the national commodity organizations. Women like Adcock and Costa don’t need fancy PR campaigns because their sustainable farming practices speak for themselves.

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Sheila is a Legislative and Policy Analyst for the Environmental Working Group. She grew up working on her family's cattle, corn and soybean farm in northeast Nebraska. She received a bachelor of science degree in economics and management information systems from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a masters degree in environmental policy from the London School of Economics. Sheila has written about farm subsidies' effects on rural communities and farmers' views about conservation programs and farm subsidies in the next Farm Bill. She is a 2007 Harry Truman Scholar and most recently worked for Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.). In her free time, you’ll find Sheila enjoying life with her husband, skiing, running, cooking and cheering on the Nebraska Huskers. Read more >

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  1. Mike1608
    A response to this:


    I grew up on a farm and my dad was involved in many farm groups and my mom in other non-farm groups. That doesn't mean my mom wasn't there beside my dad working her butt off on the farm.

    How sad that you tear down all the hard work farm women do every day...and believe that somehow women don't have a mind and will of their own to speak about agriculture and the issues. (Unless, of course, they speak on the type of agriculture that suits you. Why is that?)

    I don't know if the author is off lost in D.C. with EWG but perhaps she could take time to meet some of the CommonGround women in her home state and talk about food, agriculture and life on the farm. Perhaps she would discover some very intelligent, hard working women who just happen to be farmers, too.
  2. As a woman who sits on the board of the National Corn Growers Association, I am offended by your blog post about our CommonGround program with the United Soybean Board. In your obvious cynicism you ignored that one of the great results of this new program will be the identification, recruitment and training of women to speak out for agriculture – and teaching them key skills that can help them become leaders in their communities and industry organizations. We recognize the need for more women leaders and are taking action and actually doing something about it.

    Frankly, I have enjoyed my important role at NCGA Am treating with respect as an equal partner in this organization and as I work nationally and internationally on agricultural issues. In addition to my board position, I have served on the NCGA Finance Committee and chaired the Bylaws Committee and previously chaired the NCGA Research and Business Development Action Team. In my home state of Iowa, I am a director of the Iowa Corn Growers Association and former chairwoman of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board. In addition, I am president of Iowa Corn Opportunities and a member of the U.S. Grains Council Biotech A-Team.

    In the end, it is naïve and simplistic to look at the number of board members who happen to be female and say women have no power. But if you are going to play with numbers like that, you may be interested to know that at NCGA, one of the three chief executive officers in our recent history was a woman. That’s 33% of our CEOs. Likewise in your focus on how organic agriculture is controlled by women, you conveniently ignored that women also helm the National Association of Wheat Growers and the Corn Refiners Association. And when it comes to our state corn associations, several are run by women – South Dakota, Michigan, Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina and North Carolina.

    Farm women work hard alongside farm men, and we need to stop focusing so much on these divides between men and women, large and small farms, and conventional and organic agriculture. We all have more than enough challenges in what we do. The level of cynicism and disdain for the farm women of CommonGround expressed in your post does nothing to help anyone.

    Pam Johnson, Floyd, Iowa
  3. Claire
    If you wouldn't mind letting me know what you mean by "Big Ag" I would be very interested. I hope I'm not sounding mean I just would like to know what your definition is.
  4. It is absolutely imperative that we acknowledge women's contributions to our food system since women are really historically at the center of our food ways - so I applaud you on this article that not only shows their presence, but their absence as well.

    BUT we need a more nuanced view of women's involvement in this area - simply having women on the board of agri-business isn't enough. Being a woman does not equal more equity or more socially just practices. More often than not a woman must adopt hegemonic "masculinist" traits to even get into a power position within these companies (i.e. hard, aggressive, cut-throat, etc...). Moreover, no one woman can represent "women". There is no unified "woman" - issues of class, race, sexuality, language, access, etc... complicate "woman" beyond simply a global or even local sisterhood. Therefore, we need to locate our discussion around this topic to more localized and specialized conversation.
  5. Sara
    I too would like to know what "Big Ag" really is. We hear this term all the time, but what is it actually referring to? It seems like all farmers get lumped into this “Big Ag” when actually, agriculture consists of more than 2 million independent (usually family) businesses. Not many of us think of ourselves as “big” anything. We’re just working to provide food for you and people around the world. We take a lot of flack but that just makes us want to work harder to earn a living and provide the most abundant, healthiest crops possible.

    Also, how did you come up with CommonGround being a $30 million PR campaign?
  6. First of all, let me make clear what I’m not saying, since I’ve obviously struck a chord with those orchestrating the corn and soybean growers’ $30 million PR campaign. My goal was to highlight the glaring lack of women on national agriculture commodity boards at a time when they’re training women to be their public face. That raises the question: Why are women being singled out just for this role? Why aren’t men included in this campaign?

    I recognize that several ag organizations are led and well represented by women, but the fact is, women constitute just 1 percent (3 out of 228) of the membership of the national commodity boards, the very groups sponsoring this campaign. I believe that more women should be welcomed at all levels of these organizations, including at the top.

    I urged “farmers and non-farmers alike to question how our food is grown, not who is showcased in a public relations campaign.” Women and men alike have important messages to convey especially to non-farmers. But the puzzling response from proponents of this campaign completely misses the point – why are women being singled out to do the public relations campaigns while their male counterparts do the decision making?

    Women farmers are some of the most hard-working, well-rounded, dedicated and intelligent people in agriculture today. Among these dedicated women are some of my family members, who work long hours, planting and harvesting corn, soybeans and alfalfa and raising cattle, chickens and hogs. Some of them are making major marketing decisions and managing funds for their families’ farms. I worked on our family farm for more than 10 years and lean on that experience every day I show up to work at EWG.

    I agree that farmers’ voices need to be heard, but this should be coupled with an honest and open debate about current farming practices, federal incentives and regulations and their effect on our water, air and health – for both conventional and organic farming.

    At EWG we value transparency: transparency in farm payments to the largest and wealthiest operations and transparency in the millions spent on marketing campaigns that are too often designed to mislead consumers.

    Please, do an analysis of female representation across the entire spectrum of boards and organizations involved in “production” agriculture. Prove me wrong. I would love to see more statistics on women’s representation there since women are often working on the same farms these men represent at a national or state level.

    At the very least my hope is that by asking the tough questions, we could start an honest discussion and hopefully move toward a path that rights this gender inequality.

    Sheila Karpf, EWG Legislative and Policy Analyst
  7. Dawn
    I have read this article several times now, trying to figure out where the author got misdirected in her thinking in regard to CommonGround. I happen to be one of the 15 VOLUNTEERS participating in CommonGround. When I agreed to participate as a volunteer, never once did I consider how many men and how many women sit on any one commodity board. I view agriculture, and thus food production, as a team effort among everyone involved. I felt I could be a strong, objective contributor to an effort where the goal is not leadership or promotion. Explanation of farming practices in America is a more appropriate description of CommonGround’s purpose. The author refers to those of us who have volunteered as the “faces chosen to showcase the campaign.” That seems quite extreme considering how the program really works. Ultimately, many, and I would contend, even most, farmers (men and women alike) do what they do because they are not comfortable in the public eye. This group of women is willing to step out of their traditional day-to-day comfort zone to be advocates for all farmers.

    The volunteers come from all different types of farms and backgrounds. Each of us is respectful and considerate of differences in farming practices and food choices. All of us are completely involved in the day-to-day running of our farms, helping make business decisions as well as doing the physical work. Several of us are or have been involved with commodity boards and are extremely involved in our communities and our children’s activities. For myself, I am a wife, mom, daughter, granddaughter, sister, aunt, and friend (just like any other woman who loves her family and friends) who also happens to love agriculture and doesn’t mind sharing our family’s farm story about raising beef and crops. In addition, I, like many other women, happen to be the one who decides what will fill our refrigerator and pantry. I often receive wonderful grilling and restaurant advice from men, but when I have grocery questions, I tend to seek advice from another female. I hope I can be that sounding board for questions and comments as well as a source of accurate facts for other women and men who desire greater understanding of food and where it comes from.
  8. FarmerJane
    In dairy, there are scores of cooperatives in New York. After a review of the lists of officers, I found that less than 5% of those holding these positions were women. With that said, I should note that the actual leaders of farm rallies and protests in 2009 when the price of milk crashed were WOMEN! Women chartered buses to Washington, DC, set up the rallies where farmers congregated and protested. When asked why the male officers of cooperatives didn't speak out very much, many indicated that they were afraid that Dean Foods or other big milk processors would strike back and punish their cooperative by refusing to take the milk or cutting prices further. In my area, women ran for seats on our local Farm Bureau, but failed to get elected by the mostly male membership at meetings. In NY, the women are definitely working along side the men, making decisions, doing cow care, investing money.
    I do have a question though....What are you calling "Big Ag?" Some of the women I have spoken with from commodity groups say they are getting involved in advocacy to better tell the story of the "farmer in the middle".... that is the typical conventional farmer who is not necessarily organic, but runs the farm with a family and uses the best practices he or she can do to tend to their land and animals. Hardly "BIG AG".

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