Agriculture Magazine November/December 2015

Agribusiness: Women Holding Ground in Agriculture Industry

November/December 2015 Issue


The world of agriculture is full of women. Most of them, though, aren’t in the United States, where women seem to be just holding their ground in the industry.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, of the 3.18 million farm operators in the United States, nearly 1 million were female. But, some 60 percent of those were spouses of “principal operators,” Agriculture Department-speak for “head of the farm.” Only about 288,000 women were principal operators, down 18,000 from the last agriculture census in 2007. That’s consistent with a roughly 5 percent decline in the overall number of U.S. farms between the two censuses. However, acreage in farms principally run by women declined by 2.5 percent, compared to less than 1 percent for overall U.S. farms.

You can look through the data, though, and find areas of growth. There were more women in 2012 working solely on farms, without supplemental income, than there were in 2007. There were many more who had been on the same farm for at least a decade. As is the case with all farm operators, they’re getting older as a group; 250,000 were at least 65 years old, up from just 215,000 in 2007.

This is not the way it is worldwide. According to the United Nations, the majority of the world’s farmers are women, and they produce 80 percent of the world’s food. But, said the UN, it’s striking that this workforce provides most of the world’s bounty even though women face greater difficulties and constraints than their male counterparts with regard to land ownership and access to resources like credit, technology, farm inputs and education.

The last decade saw several firsts for U.S. women in agricultural leadership positions. In 2009, former Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., became the first woman to chair the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; when Lincoln was defeated for re-election in 2010, she was succeeded as committee chair by Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

Also, when George W. Bush became president in 2001, he named Ann Veneman the first female secretary of the USDA. Veneman — whose father was undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the Reagan administration — had previously served with USDA as deputy secretary and in other offices, and her ascension to the top job nationally was seen as evidence that someone could work their way up in that agency, regardless of gender.

Among the women to take high-profile jobs in agribusiness in the 2000s was Patricia Woertz, who became CEO of Archer Daniels Midland Co. But it’s worth noting, Woertz had spent 29 years as an oil company executive, and was already an executive vice president for Chevron when she made the move to ADM. For whatever reason, women have been advancing more slowly in agribusiness than in other industries.

“There still aren’t as many women CEOs out there,” Sara Wyant, who founded the Washington, D.C.-based weekly newsletter Agri-Pulse, told AMP. “But they’re gaining, and they’re getting higher and higher positions, and there’s many more women than there used to be.”

But some jobs in the field have already achieved equality of gender roles. Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of congressional relations in American Farm Bureau Federation’s Public Policy Department, said there may be more female agricultural lobbyists in Washington than there are male. That’s a big change from when she started out 35 years ago, when she was discouraged from seeking an advocacy job with a state farm organization. Now, she said, “People are just very accepting, and, in general, it’s a very equal division of labor.”

Thatcher also has a reason for the surge cited by USDA’s census of older women in production agriculture. She said older people of both genders are initiating agricultural enterprises, like growing fruits and vegetables to sell directly to consumers. She said, “Lots of people from the city are sort of tired of the urban racket, and want to get out and try being in farming themselves.”

These “New Age, older” farmers are being helped by USDA support programs that have been substantially increased in the last two federal farm bills. One of them is the USDA Socially-Disadvantaged Groups Grant, which provides technical funding through local organizations to help rural farmers overcome prejudices, including those related to gender. Another, open to all farmers and ranchers, is the Value Added Producer Grants, which offsets costs related to preparing a further-processed farm product for the marketplace.

And, Thatcher has a tip for any woman who’s just getting into her side of the business: “Always work very hard; just make sure that you’re out there, you’re putting your best foot forward. You know, there may still be a little bit of male chauvinism when you come to a little bit of agriculture, but once you prove yourself you’ll be very accepted. You might have a little bit tougher time proving yourself in the beginning, but it’ll all pay off.”

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