Women farmers make up a growing percentage of agricultural practitioners in this country–according to the 2007 Census of Ag (pdf!), 14% of principal farm operators are women, and based on all farm operators on which data is compiled (primary, secondary, and tertiary), women make up 30% of the nation’s farmers overall.
The data shows that women farmers are indeed the fastest-growing segment of the agricultural population, though the real rise over time is difficult to measure because the USDA only began collecting information about non-principal operators in 2002–we only have snapshots of 2002 and 2007 to go on in determining the total number.
Woman farmers are also older, on average, than their male counterparts–by two full years. This statistic surprised me at first–until I realized that the likely explanation for the gap is that women tend to live longer than men, and that when the husband/father of a farm family dies, his wife typically becomes the principal.
Consider that single women 75 and older own fully 10% of Iowa’s farmland, according this article on an Iowa State University study released in December of last year.
But although the articles and Census of Ag fact sheets do give us some hints and clues about what’s going on in agriculture in terms of age and gender (for instance, that the states with the lowest percentage of female farmers also have the lowest percentage of beginning farmers–hello, South Dakota!), they cannot tell us what the surveys didn’t ask.
The Census of Ag does not ask the marital status/sexual orientation of operators or the specifics of the principal operator’s relationship to other operators (other than if it is a corporation and/or family business). It also does not ask age or gender of hired help and interns.
Why is this information important? Because it gives us a better picture of the family dynamics of farming–how many widowed farmers we have; how many single farmers we have, how many LGBT-identifying farmers we have, and how many “wannabe” farmers we might have out there.
A quick Google search for “widowed farmers” offers only anecdotal evidence and stories–almost all focusing on women whose husbands have died or committed suicide (and in India, this is a huge problem). “Single farmers” search results focus on and around the personal site FarmersOnly.com (where, “City folks just don’t get it!”™).
A search of “LGBT farmers” and “gay farmers” also yields very little except decidedly non-scientific polls, personal ads, an interesting paper about “rural social codes and construction of sexuality and gender.”
Additionally, “wannabe farmers” (a pretty non-scientific search term, I’ll admit) and “desire to farm” searches yielded results focusing on Crop Mobs and personal blogs, and more personal blogs and surveys of children of farmers, respectively.
Within our current survey framework, there appears to be little ability to identify who wants to farm unless they already have access to a farm, and little ability to identify possibly helpful specifics about existing farming partnerships.
Considering the results of the 2009 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll (linked to under “surveys” above), which shows that less than half of the farmers polled had a child interested in farming, we might want to start identifying a broader range of young or at least younger people about their farm aspirations. And maybe trying to help them forge partnerships to make it possible.
Let me introduce some anecdotal evidence of my own about a segment of the population with a strong desire to farm: women in their twenties, thirties, and forties–single women, sometimes with children, often with some farm experience, but without the capital or a partnership to make it feasible, safe, or responsible.
I first caught wind of the single female farmer problem at the MOSES conference last year, when I sat down with my fellow employer from a good-sized Wisconsin CSA farm and one of her more recent interns, whose parents had offered to buy her land to enable her to fulfill her farming dreams.
She knew what she’d be getting into–she’d been involved in farming her whole young life, and she’d decided that she wanted her future to be in farming as well.
But she was torn–in her early twenties and without a life partner–what was she going to do out there on this farmstead by herself? When would she ever even see anyone–have a social life–meet friends or forge relationships?
The farmstead her parents were offering to buy her was in many ways ideal for the type of operation she wanted to pursue–but it would mean that most of her time would be spent working in complete isolation–fixing up the house, cultivating the fields, eating, drinking, sleeping alone, all the time.
She was practically in a panic–wanting so badly to farm and having this opportunity to start out debt-free right in front of her, but knowing how cut-off from the world she’d be.
Another young woman I’ve known for a couple of years also grew up in a farming family, and has lived and worked on several farms in her region. She has her own livestock, sells eggs, and makes soap as well, and she wants very much to buy a farm of her own.
Her parents have made no offers in that regard (so far as I know), and there’s no husband or boyfriend or other partner in the picture–and she doesn’t seem inclined to hitch up with one just to make her farming goals a reality.
She and I have shared our dreams about ideal farmsteads and possible partnerships, but both of us are rooted in our respective communities. Would I buy a farm with her? It’s certainly possible. Except that both of us have established markets and relationships that we’re hesitant to sever.
At another conference this spring, I met a woman a little older than myself who also indicated a strong desire to build a farm business. She’d worked on farms and her grandfather had farmed, but since she had her son and was trying to make ends meet on her own, she had mostly focused on finding jobs in more urban areas.
Though not as rooted in a particular community, she was held back by the same difficulty as the first young women I’d talked to: she’d be out on that farm all alone. Except not really alone–she’d also have responsibility for the care of her son in a rural place where she wouldn’t likely have access to a strong network of support and services.
And with rural places emptying out, conventional farms getting bigger, farmsteads getting farther apart, and neighbors getting older–how much help could you get if you needed it?
That’s the fear that wells up every time I look at buying a farm place myself–OK, so what the heck would I do out there on my own–especially if we had a winter like the last one? How crazy would I get? Is it even responsible to think about moving my child to a dirt road farmstead ten miles from the nearest town with no other adult present? Probably not.
While I do have a great partner in H, he’s not really looking to re-start his farming career. He helps out a lot in my current operation, but that operation is on his land. It wouldn’t really make sense for him to come out and work on an operation I owned and let his own land go. Farms are incredibly needy places, after all.
So I have been thinking about single female farmers and wannabe farmers–ways to identify them, connect them, and help them form partnerships that can make them more successful in their enterprise–whether that’s backing each other up on the big jobs, diversifying their enterprises to enhance their incomes, and yes, even helping each other raise and care for the kids if they have them.
But the tricky part is that much of what we know about single farmers, female farmers, and wannabe farmers is so anecdotal. And even if we know there’s a reasonably large number of them, how do we find them and get them together, in one place–in the same state or region–nevermind on the same farm?