You are here
Women on the grow
Lori Lang doesn't hesitate to try her hand at something new.
That includes downhill skiing, scuba diving, ice climbing – and farming. As a
high school senior at Vinton, Iowa, she rented 15 acres to grow soybeans for
her FFA Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE).When her crop was ready to
harvest, she drove their 1660 combine 5 miles to the field. Her mom, Pauline
Grovert, wasn't sure her daughter was road-ready. Her dad, George Grovert, didn't
try to talk her out of it.
Today, Lang, 38, sets and operates a
combine with a 30-foot head. Together, with her older brother, Paul Grovert,
and their parents, she farms 2,000 acres of seed corn, seed beans, and
After completing an ag education degree
and an agronomy minor at Iowa State University, Lang worked in agribusiness and
later taught ag ed. Five years ago, her parents offered her and Paul the
opportunity to return home to farm full time.
Lang returned as a single mom. "I
jumped in with both feet, bringing my two girls with me," she says.
She grew up watching her mom and dad
work together. "I called myself a farmer," Pauline says. Three
decades ago, women who farmed with their husbands received little recognition
for their roles.
Men still operate the majority of U.S.
farms that produce commercial crops and require capital-intensive assets of
land and equipment. USDA statistics reveal that women operate 14% of the nation's
2.2 million farms. Of all ag producers, more than 30% are women. That's up 19%
The 2012 census may mark greater
gains. Trends in demographics, technology, and consumer food choices are
converging to carve out a larger role for women in production agriculture,
niche local foods, agribusiness, and landownership. Ag women truly are on the
Lang and her brother bought their
first farm together as she was finishing college. Since then, they've purchased
two other farms. They also rent family ground.
Lang's early struggles with
cultivating seem irrelevant today. Her reputation for straight rows no longer
yields bragging rights because farmers can achieve the same results with GPS.
Her major challenge, marketing, is gender-neutral. "When I was growing up,
Mom and Dad talked about missing the market by a nickel," she says. "Today,
there are 80¢ market swings. I love growing plants, and driving tractors. Every
time a semi leaves here, though, I can't help but think about the profit or loss."
Lang's personal history as a woman farmer is mostly
positive. "Very few people are gender-biased," she says. "Some
customers tend to call Paul even if he's told them I'll be handling the
situation. They don't realize I'm his business partner."
Other farmers are very supportive. "Sometimes I ask
questions of farmers I admire for their business savvy," she says. "I've
found them to be very open in sharing information."
A widowed neighbor farms with her son, but there aren't any
other solo women farmers nearby. Lang has traveled with Iowa women farmers as
part of an Iowa State University Extension Farmer to Farmer Project to advise
Ugandan women farmers.
She balances farming with being a mom and a school
volunteer. "I don't bake cookies the first week of May," she says.
She's grateful for backup child care from her mom and sister-in-law.
Lang is part of a crop of farmers cultivated by Ag450 farm
operator Greg Vogel over the past 22 years at the ISU student-run farm. "We
average about 15% to 20% women in the class," he says. "When I
started, we didn't have many."
A 2011 study of 70 land-grant universities reveals that
undergraduate women enrolled in agriculture programs outnumber men by more than
2,900 students. At the Ag450 farm, Vogel says women students gravitate to
managerial, financial, or public relations areas, with a few choosing agronomy
"Women tend to be proactive," he says. "They
want to get at it, get it done, and move on. They're not set in their ways of
doing things. Guys often do things Dad's way. Agriculture today relies more on
technology; there are fewer physical demands. It requires reflection. That's
made it more attractive to women."
You grow, girl
The fastest-growing segment of women farmers is in produce,
specialty crops, animals, and one-to-one direct markets. Their farms are
smaller and more intensive, averaging 210 acres in the 2007 Ag Census. They
carry less debt.
This trend is fed by a consumer
groundswell for fresh, local foods and face-to-face relationships with food
producers. Sara Morrison, 38, operates The Backyard Grocery, an urban garden
consulting business she founded in 2009 in Bayport, a Twin Cities suburb. Last
year, she added a community-supported agriculture (CSA) venture.
"It's a different way of selling," she says. "You
have to be personally involved with CSA customers by email and phone, and you
need to talk about pricing with wholesale customers."
Morrison, who grew up in nearby Stillwater, has no farm
background. Her mom, Lois, spent time at an aunt's dairy farm as a child, where
she helped tend their vegetable garden. She acquired a love of gardening and
later became a Master Gardener.
Morrison preferred riding horses. After high school, she
earned an equine science degree in 1992. For over a decade, she trained horses
and gave riding lessons while living in California, Holland, and Wales.
"If you had told my mom someday I'd be farming and
growing vegetables, she wouldn't have believed it," Morrison says.
In 2002, she returned to Minnesota to put down roots.
Buying a home gave her a foothold. She describes her first
garden as a disaster. Her mom offered sage advice, and Morrison began devouring
books about growing vegetables. In her job as produce manager at the River
Market Co-op in Stillwater, she met local farmers.
"Suddenly, I had a lot of exposure to farmers, food,
and the food chain," she says. She decided that there could be a market
for other novice gardeners, so she launched her business. She helped them plan
gardens and offered advice during the growing season. The business grew from 15
customers in the first year to 40. In the winter she conducts gardening
Morrison tilled a plot on her mom's small farm across the
river in Wisconsin, where they planted garlic, shallots, and heirloom
vegetables. They canned produce to sell at farmers' markets.
By 2010, she decided she needed a a new business model. She
and Lois enrolled in a Land Stewardship Project's Farm Beginnings class in
Recently, Morrison acquired 1 acre in Stillwater. She hopes
to expand from 10 to 15 CSA customers, delivering vegetables weekly and sharing
recipes for the produce in their CSA boxes.
She's also diversifying to sell to wholesale markets,
including three Stillwater restaurants and the River Market Co-op. "Whatever's
interesting and fun for them to cook is what I want to grow," she says. "There's
more profit in niches, too."
Morrison's challenges mirror Lang's, but on a smaller scale:
drought, insects, agronomics, and markets. The joys for this self-described "new
kid on the block" also resonate. "I love being outdoors and the first
day of working the rows barefoot," she says. "I'm constantly amazed
what seeds can do."
She adds, "It takes a lot of up-front work. You have to
establish relationships, plant the seeds, and then it's on you to deliver the
goods. There's a real demand. I've noticed a lot more women farmers since 2002."
These are skills that many women possess. "Over the
past five years, about half of the people at our workshops have been women,"
says Brian DeVore, Land Stewardship Project.
Applying off-farm skills
LaVell Winsor never had second thoughts about working in the
male bastion of marketing. Today, the farm-grown Colorado native is applying
her education and off-farm skill set on a Topeka, Kansas, farm with her
husband, Andy, his parents, Pat and Russell, and Andy's brother, Ben.
Winsor, 37, earned an agribusiness degree from Colorado
State University in 1997. She was hired by Cargill, Inc., and worked in
operations, accounting, and merchandising in Washington state.
"It was so interesting and I learned so much, but it
was in my heart to work with farmers directly," she says.
She transferred to Kansas in 1999 and became a farm
marketer, working with country elevators and building relationships with
farmer/clients. Winsor doesn't dwell on her challenges as a woman. "If you're
going to be in a male-dominated field, you better not get your head wrapped
around it," she says.
She was working in Topeka when she met Andy. They married in
2003 and have two sons. In 2005, she became one of 20 personal marketing
managers for Cargill AgHorizons Marketing Services and the only woman. She
traveled weekly, making recommendations to farmers.
In 2007, she left Cargill to work at Kansas State University
as a farm financial analyst. She helped farmers use FINPACK, a financial
software, and led workshops called Keeping the Family Farming.
Today, she's a commodity adviser for a Manhattan-based firm.
She handles marketing and records for their farm and Andy's parents. "I
still do a FINPACK analysis on our farm," she says. "It's a good
budgeting and cash-flow tool.
"I always encourage farmers to involve their spouse in
marketing and finances," she says. "My mom was a hands-on farmer. She
farmed full time while Dad also worked off-farm. Some women are very involved
in the day-to-day and some aren't. Farm women do a lot more than they get
credit for. In a way, they're the glue, the emotional support system. They're
hands-on with business details."
Winsor is too young to recall that three decades ago, a
Springfield, Nebraska, farm woman named Doris Royal, led a successful petition
drive to prove a widow's contribution to a farm owned in joint tenancy. This
effort helped women pass on the farm to the next generation.
Through the Keeping the Family Farming workshops, Winsor has
observed the role women play in farm transitions.
Don Jonovic, Family Business Management Services, reinforces
her view. "I've seen a transformation of the woman's role from loyal,
behind-the-scenes support and acquiescence to up-front participation and
advocacy," he says. "On the whole, it's a positive change, forcing
constructive conversation and action on key succession issues."
During the farm crisis of the 1980s, women assumed off-farm
jobs to pay for living expenses and to provide health insurance. A generation
ago, unless a woman was a teacher, she often quit her job after marriage. For
Winsor and a growing segment of women like her, there's no turning back. "I
think I'll always have one foot planted in agribusiness," she says.
Women at the table
Women have made high-profile contributions in the livestock
arena. Temple Grandin has blazed a trail as consultant to the meat industry,
implementing animal welfare standards for McDonald's and designing humane
slaughter plant procedures.
Women increasingly are landowners. The 2002 Ag Census showed a 13% increase in women
managing farm assets between 1997 and 2002. Women control 28% of leased
farmland and jointly own an added 48% of rented acres.
When it comes to national farm
leadership positions in commodity agriculture, however, not many women have a
place at the table. Pam Johnson of Floyd, Iowa, is serving as president of the
National Corn Growers Association.
In contrast, women on the National
Sustainable Agriculture Coalition's organizational council outnumber men. Women
are leaders of major national organic food and agriculture organizations.
In recent years, USDA has taken steps
to encourage women on farms. When Lang's mother, Pauline, was asked to serve on
the Farm Service Agency (FSA) county committee as a minority member, minus
voting rights, she declined. Last month, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack
announced that he's appointing voting members from socially disadvantaged
groups to serve on county FSA committees that lack representation.
The USDA also is reaching out to Hispanic and women farmers
and ranchers who can prove that the government engaged in discriminatory
practices between 1981 and 2000. In the 2011 fiscal year, FSA made 3,553 loans
to women. This is a 31% increase from 2006.
Women are proving they can diversify agriculture, with their
skills, knowledge, and passion. They have the momentum.
Lang says young producers – male or female – face steep
start-up costs. "I'm concerned it'll keep many out," she says. "Women
are good at face-to-face direct marketing, and it takes fewer resources. Women
also do a great job blogging about agriculture and educating nonfarmers."
Want more Women in Ag features? Sign up for the newsletter today at
Women agribusiness mentors
Career opportunities abound for women in agriculture and
agribusiness today. "The future of agriculture is bright, and there's a
lot of optimism," says LaVell Winsor, Topeka, Kansas, farm woman and
commodity adviser. "For women, I think there are great opportunities in
Penny Lauritzen, Lanark, Illinois, agrees. Four years ago,
she initiated the Women Changing the Face of Agriculture career fair. (She
holds the sign in the main story photo.) The 2013 event, a project of Illinois AgriWomen,
was held at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale on March 8. It attracted
400 high school and college-age women interested in agribusiness careers.
Scholarships, supported by agribusiness sponsors, are
offered to participants aiming for careers in science, technology, engineering,
agriculture, and math.
FFA and 4-H member attendees compete in a fun event called
The Duct Tape & Fencing Wire Challenge. Today, women make up 43% of FFA
memberships, and they hold half of the state leadership positions.
Women are stepping up to mentor the next generation. "Young
women are continuing their education after high school," Lauritzen says. "It's
up to our generation to support and to develop their potential as future women
leaders in the ag industry."
Women carve new turf
Sara Morrison and her mom, Lois Morrison, enjoy
mother-daughter outings that involve food. It's not so unusual. Unlike other
mother-daughter duos, their time spent together focuses on the production end
of the farm-to-table movement.
They recently attended the 24th
annual Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) Conference in
La Crosse, Wisconsin. It's the nation's largest educational and networking
event for organic farmers. According to the Organic Farming Research
Foundation, 22% of organic farmers are women.
As agriculture becomes more consumer-driven, women like the
Morrisons are in the forefront. Sara launched her CSA and wholesale vegetable
sales on a plot of land owned by Lois. Sara was assisted by Lois's lifelong
knowledge of gardening.
In 2008, MOSES, based in Spring Valley, Wisconsin, launched
the Rural Women's Project. Its director, Lisa Kivirist, and her husband left
Chicago careers to farm in southern Wisconsin.
The Rural Women's Project features a series of on-farm
workshops in Wisconsin and Minnesota called "In Her Boots: Sustainable
Farming for Women, by Women." The tours cover organic dairies, rotational
grazing, growing produce, livestock and grass-fed meat operations, and
agritourism. (Learn more at mosesorganic.org.)
In addition to Sara's garden plot on Lois's small Wisconsin
farm, Lois also keeps bees. She's helping conventional farmers maintain a
foothold in agriculture, as well. She recently rented hay ground to livestock
producers in the area.
This land is hers
Sarah Lankton (right)
and Pam Nelson (left), Northbrook, Illinois, both inherited farms from
their parents. There's nothing passive, however, about the hands-on role they
are taking to keep up with agriculture and to manage their farms from a
The two women met at a suburban Chicago book club and bonded
over the discovery that they both own farmland.
According to the USDA Economic Research Service, 46% of
farmland owned by women is inherited. The average age of a woman solo landowner
who leases land is 70.
Over the next two decades, an estimated 70% of U.S. farmland
will change hands. It's projected that 75% of the land that's transferred will
go to women. An increasing number live out of state.
"Over 20% of land in Iowa, and in many other states, is
rented from absentee owners," says Mike Duffy, Iowa State University ag
economist. "My guess is this eventually will level out at 40%."
Lankton and Nelson say they enjoy networking with other
women. The same holds true for doing business.
"When I call the local grain elevator, I speak to a
woman who works there," Lankton says. "One day when I was talking to
her, I found out that she works directly with another woman who is her contact
at the river grain terminal."