The Importance of Women In Ag
Advancements in technology and mechanization have made farm work less physical, and have enticed more women to engage in ag careers. Other women have been there all along, just not in the limelight.
According to the USDA’s 2017 Census of Agriculture, just over 36% of American ag producers are women, an increase of nearly 5% since the 2012 Census.
Inspiring Women In Ag By Telling Their Stories
FarmHer creator Marji Guyler-Alaniz describes women as the often unseen faces of agriculture. Women have always played a vital role on the farm. They work the fields, birth livestock, do daily chores, keep the books, and take an active role in farm management decisions. And, often, they bring their own twist on farming.
Crystal Blin of Independence, Iowa, is one example. She and her husband operate JJB Cattle Co. where they raise purebred Herefords that she primps for photos and names after lipstick colors.
Kaitlyn Elliott of Gravel Switch, Kentucky, is the fourth generation of her family to grow, harvest, and process sorghum. The sugary liquid produced goes into products sold to local restaurants, at farmers markets, and through an Etsy store, including Elliott’s Poorhouse Sorghum custom made barbecue sauce.
Erin Williams works along side her husband managing his third-generation cranberry farm in South Middleboro, Massachusetts. She also has her own farm Bogside Acres, where she raises Simmental cattle, Tamworth-cross pigs, and Cornish-cross broiler chickens.
According to the Ag Census, women are more likely to run livestock operations than traditional corn, soybean, and wheat farms, and a high percentage of those considered principal farm operators run farms of less than 180 acres.
Female principal operators of large farm operations are rare, but their numbers are growing.
Cameo Van Horn farms 863 acres of corn and soybeans near Danube, Minnesota. “I’m the farmer, and my husband [with a job in town] helps out,” says Van Horn.
Debbie Lyons-Blythe heads up a 500-head Angus cattle ranch in White City, Kansas.
Just like any other farmers, these women talk about the struggles of commodity prices, express their great love for the land and concern about regulation, and rave about the generations that farmed and ranched the same ground before them – all from behind the wheel of their pickups.
What makes them different from their male counterparts is they never assumed they’d be the ones inheriting the farm.
Few efforts have done as much as Marji Guyler-Alaniz’s FarmHer to change the image of women on the farm.
“Women have always been an important part of ag,” says Guyler-Alaniz. “But you haven’t always seen that.” She wants other women, particularly young women, to see themselves in her images and see their possibilities.
When Guyler-Alaniz set out on her first photo shoot in April 2013, she wanted to photograph women farmers in their native habitat. What the lens found were women in touch with their inner selves, their land, their livestock, their lifestyle. These were empowered women, with the potential to empower others.
That sense of empowerment carried over to an educational movement that includes images, merchandise, public appearances and a series of GROW seminars focused in young women age 15-23.
An active online community, FarmHer has 47,000 followers on Facebook and 23,000 on Instagram, with another 7,000 on Twitter.
There is also a television show on RFD-TV, a radio show, a podcast, and a regular monthly column in Successful Farming magazine.
“Women bring a certain beauty to agriculture that we don’t always see,” says Guyler-Alaniz.
Among other things, FarmHer encourages women in ag to understand their motives before making plans and setting goals. Guyler-Alaniz says she is motivated the potential good the movement can bring, in helping the consumer understand the origins of their food, helping the public see women farmers realistically, and helping women in ag gain confidence in themselves.
FarmHer is there for women of all ages – those just starting out, those returning to the farm, and those still, after many years, facing the day-to-day challenges of life on the farm.
Guyler-Alaniz took a leap in leaving her career behind to follow FarmHer’s path. She tells women facing similar circumstances to dig deep for the courage and go for it.
Then, find the tribe that makes you feel courageous. Guyler-Alaniz says by tapping her courage and her support system, she was able to gain more confidence in her abilities. She hopes that insight will help others move mountains as they make their way in the world of agriculture.
A Proud History of Women in Ag
The Bureau of Agricultural Economics reported more than 2 million men left farm jobs between April 1940 and July 1942, as World War II had them abandoning the farm for military service and wartime industries.
By war’s end, that number had climbed to 6 million, and U.S. food production had increased 32% over prewar levels.
Women picked up the slack. Women are not new to agriculture.
The tale of women’s contribution to ag through time is documented by the Female Farmer Project, created by Audra Mulkern.
She says the idea came to her in the midst of a revelation at the farmers market in her local farming community on Puget Sound.
“I was people-watching, and I realized that there were women behind every single table,” she says. “I wondered where the men were, then I wondered what made me think farmers should be men.”
She began to explore the rise of women in agriculture, and to ask, “Who is growing my food?”
Before long, she self-published a book of her original photos, along with farmer essays. That expanded into stories, essays, a podcast, and a documentary film Women’s Work: The Untold Story of America’s Female Farmers.
Mulkern uses investigative reporting to delve into topics such as the mental health crisis and community leadership. “I’m looking at a lot of things through the gender lens: farming, leadership, tracking female farmers running for office,” she says. “Yes, there are women farming. That’s established. Now let’s talk about them being at the table.”
One place female farmers were featured in the 1940s was in Successful Farming magazine. Darlene Graf, 17, was on the cover in September 1943. She helped run her family’s Nebraska farm when the hired man left for a Defense job.
In September 2018, Successful Farming caught up with then 92-year-old Darlene Harrington at her home in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
She said farming was an easy fit for her during the war years. She had had a driver’s permit since age 14 to truck grain to the elevator in town, drove a tractor on the farm, and helped with the wheat harvest. She had grown up on the farm during the Depression, watching her mother raise chickens and grow a large garden to feed the family, selling eggs and dressed fryer to ladies in town to make ends meet.
Like their male counterparts, women on the farm wear a lot of hats. They are primary operator, mother, wife, ag implement salesperson, and large animal veterinarian, to name a few.
Yet, often, their safety and health needs are overlooked.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) lists numerous women’s safety and health issues in agriculture, including pesticide exposure, chronic bronchitis, pregnancy-related risks, work-related injuries, exposure to inhaled substances, livestock-related injuries, fatigue, cancer risks, depression, and risk factors for infertility.
To complicate the picture, the rural areas in which they live frequently provide inadequate access to healthcare and screenings. The same goes for mental health issues, at a time when the stress levels are increasing.
Women on the farm can suffer from what is known as “third shift syndrome.” Many women work off the farm in order to provide a steady income and health insurance for the family, and like many working women, they come home to a “second shift” of housework and childcare.
But farm women have additional responsibilities. They face a “third shift” of farm management and labor.
Along with healthy diet and regular exercise, experts say yoga and Pilates can help farm women both physically and mentally by increasing core strength, protecting the back from injury and joints and muscles from strain or sprain, providing overall conditioning, and helping fight stress and exhaustion.