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Jennifer Banks: Women find niches in agriculture

Jennifer Banks
Jennifer Banks

When I say farming and ranching are "men's work," how do you react? Because it's true: More than 70 percent of U.S. farm operators are men.

However, the field is changing. Census data from the past three decades show that the share of farms operated by women in the U.S. has tripled to 30 percent. While this denotes progress, I still have to ask: Why aren't there more women farmers?

In April 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published a report, "Characteristics of Women Farm Operators and Their Farms." (A "farm operator" is defined as the person primarily responsible for making a farm's business decisions.)

The study indicates that almost 75 percent of women-operated farms have annual sales less than $10,000 and only 5 percent have sales topping $100,000. The average female farmer lost money in 2007 after accounting for expenses including depreciation.

These statistics indicate that most women farmers must still rely on off-farm income to support their households. However, income may not be their primary driver for a life on the farm or ranch.

As I've studied women in agriculture, I've noticed that they tend to be more focused on nontraditional farming methods such as sustainable agriculture or organic farming. These types of operations are struggling to create healthy profit margins and are known to have smaller sales volumes.

Women are also taking on roles that are less visible. In an article in the Oct. 24 Capital Press, Eric Mortenson wrote that many women in agriculture hold important research and management positions. The state directors of agriculture in Idaho, Oregon and California are all female. Agriculture careers now include biochemists, computer programmers and financial analysts.

These new roles, coupled with the growth of women farm operators, will lead to changes in the demographics of agriculture workers.

The number of all women involved with American farming - including primary and secondary operators - is nearly 1 million and growing. In recent years the number of young women entering farming has outpaced the number of women leaving farming. (The opposite is true for men). Women are also more likely to own the land they farm - only 15 percent of women rent farm ground compared with 34 percent of male farmers - and are better educated than their male counterparts. Sixty-one percent of women studied beyond high school compared with 47 percent of men.

A year ago I never would have envisioned myself working in the agriculture industry. I was raised as a city girl and educated in business. I spent 15 years in banking before looking for a new opportunity that led me to a role with an agribusiness company.

Whether the rich soils and clean air are calling their names, or their skill sets find a fit in the industry, women are finding a home in agriculture. With each generation women become more prevalent on the farm.

Farming and ranching is hard work, and it takes hard-working men and women to make the industry successful.; 893-5333