Women now account for 30 percent of the farm operators in the U.S., a number which has almost tripled in the last three decades, creating the fastest growing segment in agriculture. But beyond the numbers, women are at the forefront of an important shift in today’s farm landscape.
Namely, women tend to farm on smaller pieces of land, grow diverse crops, favor sustainable practices, and prioritize food over commodity crops.
In their new book, The Rise of Women Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture, a quintet of authors—Carolyn Sachs, Mary E. Barbercheck, Kathyrn Brasier, Nancy Ellen Kiernan, and Rachel Terman—take a close look at two trends happening simultaneously: an increase in the number of women farmers and a growing demand for sustainable agriculture.
Terman took time to share some insights into the trends and what she learned while researching the topic.
Why did you all decide to write about this topic?
We wanted to discuss the influential role that women farmers are playing in agriculture and look at how these two trends have come together and impacted each other. We also wanted to highlight the voices of women in agriculture and share their stories. The information in the book is based on 10 years of research with the Pennsylvania Women’s Agricultural Network.
Why focus on women in agriculture?
The census data was compelling. [Until 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture only allowed one principal operator to be counted; in most cases, a man claimed the title.] When the data collection changed, it allowed more women to claim the status of “farmer.” Over the last decade, the role women play in broader society has changed; more women are taking on identities as business owners and professionals. Because of this, there are more women who have been able to get into farming and we wanted to look at what role women are playing on the farm and how it was impacting agriculture.
What, if anything, makes women and men different as farmers?
Women tend to have less land to work with and less access to the labor and capital needed to get their operations up and running. For this reason, we’re seeing more women pursuing opportunities in sustainable and organic farming where they can farm on smaller pieces of land with less equipment. Women are also putting together farms in different ways than conventional agriculture. Their operations are more diversified and often include educational components.
Women have also been really good at developing networks of women farmers to share information. Learning how to farm and create business models can be overwhelming for new farmers. In other scenarios, farmers may be reticent to share information about their businesses, but we found that women who were successful farmers were willing to open up about what worked and didn’t. This kind of peer-to-peer networking has been an important innovation for women farmers.
In the book you write, “A profound shift is occurring among women working in agriculture—they are increasingly seeing themselves as farmers, not only as the wives or daughters of farmers.” Why do you think the shift has occurred?
The women’s equality movement has helped acknowledge the different types of work that women do on the farm and women are stepping into that role more so now than ever before. They are really claiming the role, saying, “I am the farmer.” Even though we’re starting to acknowledge the numbers of women farming, I don’t know that the work they’ve done, especially in developing sustainable agriculture, has been acknowledged very widely.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching the book?
I learned so much. I was most impressed by the innovative strategies women were using to stake their claims as farmers.
One of the women [featured in the book] has an urban farm and also developed an educational program for kids; she was able to get nonprofit status because of the educational aspect of the farm. Creating a business model that combines farming and growing vegetables with community and education helped open up opportunities for the farm. Another farmer coordinated with her local township to farm on community land. Without that creative idea, she might not have been able to access land.
I don’t want to paint a broad stroke, but it does seem like the women involved in sustainable agriculture are especially interested in multiple factors involved in farming like the environment, health, food, nutrition, and how the farm is connected to the community and the community is connected to the farm. It’s a different balance of priorities than we see in [male-dominated] conventional agriculture.
What impact do you hope this book will have?
We hope that the book will encourage more women to be leaders in agriculture and hope that it helps people involved in agricultural organizations and institutions to support women farmers and develop resources and programming to best serve women in agriculture. We also hope that others find the stories of women farmers to be inspiring.