Fewer Women Farmers Show up in Ag Census

When the USDA released highlights of its 2012 Census of Agriculture last February, one surprise was that it found fewer women who count themselves as principal operators of a farm, breaking a long-term trend of carving a bigger share from a male-dominated profession. The number of women operators fell from 306,209 in the 2007 Census to 288,264 last year.

Last Friday, USDA released more details of the Census that offer some clues about why the numbers fell, breaking a growth trend of more than 25 years.

Most of the loss was among the very smallest farms and among farms that came out of the Conservation Reserve Program, say an economist with the USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) and a demographer with the Department's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), which conducts the census.

"The women farmers are falling off, but it's mostly in that same category where farmers in general are," Bob Hoppe, an ERS economist told Agriculture.com. Overall farm numbers fell by about 4% from 2007 to 2012, from 2.2 million to 2.1 million, but much of the drop was in farms most of us would not consider a commercial business. In the total census, farms with sales of less than $2,500 fell from 900,327 in 2007 to 788,310 by 2012.

Most farms run by women are small. Hoppe found that 78% of women-operated farms in the 2007 census had sales of less than $10,000, which he reported in a study released last year, "Characteristics of Women Farm Operators and Their Farms."

Hoppe's study shows a dramatic change in the 25 years between 1982 and 2007, when the number of women-operated farms more than doubled. Looking back to 1978, the share of farms run by women nearly tripled by 2007, going from 5% to nearly 14%.

In the latest census, the share of women farmers hasn't changed dramatically. In 2012 it was still 13.7% compared to 13.9% five years earlier.

Ginger Harris, a demographer and statistician for NASS based in Louisville, Kentucky, agrees with Hoppe that the smallest farms run by women saw the biggest drop.

"We've know that smaller farms in general are not profitable. They've always been, on average, losing money," she told Agriculture.com.

Small farms depend on off-farm jobs, and the loss of jobs during the recession could have been a factor, although that's not a question posed by the census, she said.

Most types of agriculture performed better than the rest of the economy. One exception was greenhouse, nursery, and floriculture production. Revenue from those enterprises declined in nominal dollars as well as real dollars, Harris said. With a depressed housing market, fewer people were spending money on landscaping. The number of women operators in that sector dropped slightly, too, from 10,332 in 2007 to 10,117 in 2012.

"Where there was money in agriculture, you did see women entering it, or at least they didn't leave," Harris said.

The number of women farm operators in oilseed and grain farming increased, from 16,345 in 2007 to 16,609 last year, according to the census.

Fewer women farmers raise vegetables and melons, but that type of agriculture saw dramatic growth, from 6,758 in 2007 to 8,456 in 2012.

The Census also counts farms receiving payments from the Conservation Reserve Program.

"The number of women receiving conservation payments was down by about 11,000," Harris said. In 2012, 43,263 women farm operators were still receiving payments for the CRP and similar conservation programs.

Once the land came out of the CRP, "perhaps they rented it out, but it does appear that they didn't farm it themselves," Harris said.

The breakdown of enterprises and other characteristics of women farmers who are the main operators of a farm can be found online in Table 56 of the census.

The Ag Census also counts women who help operate a farm, often the spouse of a man who is the principal operator. When other women operators who farm are included (up to a maximum of three operators per farm), the total number of women farmers fell from 985,192 in 2007 to 969,672 in 2012. More information on all women farm operators is summarized in Table 57 of the census.

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