Women in Farming: Breaking Through the Grass Ceiling

on August 23, 2018

By Jeanne Bernick, Kcoe Isom

Ask any consumer at the grocery store today what the average American farmer looks like, and the typical answer is: “A white male in his 50s.” While it’s true the average age of the American farmer is 58, according to USDA, if you dig more deeply you’ll find some surprising developments.

Women in Farming—By the Numbers and Tasks

The number of women farmers has tripled since the 1970s and now, according to the USDA, constitutes just under 1/3 of all farmers. More than 1/3 of farm ground is owned by women and 62.7 million acres are farmed by women principal operators, according to the last U.S. Census of Agriculture.

The roles women play on farms is changing, too. More women are full partners and owners in farming operations, and an increasing number of women are becoming key decision makers when it comes to production ag purchases, such as seed and equipment. That’s because more women are running the numbers behind the farm business – they provide the bookkeeping, accounting and CFO-type services on farm operations.

It takes brains, more than brawn, to run a modern farm. Today, women are coming home to manage their family businesses after earning MBAs or following years of experience leading from the Executive Suite in corporate America.

On a personal note, I have spent more than two decades traveling the country and visiting farms as a business journalist and ag consultant. I love the business of agriculture. With 9 billion mouths to feed on this planet by 2050, we need farmers of every size, shape and gender. I am truly excited about the number of women who are coming back to the farm, who are actively seeking to operate businesses in rural America, and who want to own agricultural land.

Much More To Do

But we need to do MORE. Though women make up 31% of all U.S. farmers, that number really could be higher. After all, women comprise 50% of the workforce in jobs outside of agriculture, and hold more than 85% of the consumer dollar. Shouldn’t the face of food really be more female?

In order for that to change, however, we need conscious efforts to cultivate leadership of women in agriculture. As former Secretary of State Madeline Albright pointedly said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

I think of this quotation often when I talk to women in rural businesses, particularly in agriculture. Is there a lack of sisterhood among female entrepreneurs that we need to address? Every woman I know says she supports other women in agriculture. But what does that really mean? Do you consider women farmers as potential renters for your farmland? Are you buying local produce from the woman-owned vegetable stand at the farmer’s market? Are you actively engaging women farmers as speakers in your local farm organizations or national associations? Do you see women as leaders in rural America, or as supporters?

There are obstacles, of course. I would be the first to admit that some of the strongest opponents of women in agricultural leadership are other women. Some recent research from Washington University in St Louis finds that women often do not support qualified female candidates as potential high-prestige work group peers because of a concept called “competitive threat” – meaning a fear that a highly qualified female candidate might be more qualified than you are. Those studies, frankly, make my skin crawl. We need each other, and agriculture needs strong women candidates to run the businesses that produce our food and fuel.

Cooperative efforts need to be made to help women break through the “grass” ceiling. It will come—if you pledge yourself to being a partner with women in agriculture. Here’s to the female face of farming! Hurrah!