Most women in agriculture do not inherit farms. This means that for most female farmers out there farming is a choice they make and they bring a lot to the table. Even though the industry can obviously greatly benefit from this, in many cases the contribution of women to agriculture has gone largely unrecognized right up until quite recently.
by Gwendolyn Jones
International women's day is a day to recognize the contributions and achievements of women in agriculture, working as farmers, veterinarians, agronomists and many more different roles supporting the agricultural industry bringing food onto our tables. As mentioned at the end of this article, farming has been identified as a critical area to achieve gender equality, because it has been proven that it will help to significantly reduce the number of hungry people in the world.
I am a female marketer and free-lance journalist working in agriculture and have been studying the female farmer in the past few months. To me it was an incredibly eye-opening and inspiring journey reading and hearing amazing stories, which I now realize more and more people around the world are starting to wake up to. Of course if you are studying the female farmer, you will also learn a lot more about the male farmer, because in many cases they will work together as a great team. However, since it is international women’s month, for this article I am focusing on developments regarding the female farmer and what she quite literally brings to the table.
Female farmers are on the rise
Agricultural powerhouses such as the US and Brazil are seeing a rise in the number of women managing farms. In 2019 Brazil reported a record of 31% of farms were managed by women, which was 3x as much compared to figures in 2013, based on facts rom the Brazil's Agribusiness Association. In the United States the proportion of farms with women as principal operators grew from 14 percent of farms in 2012 to 29% in 2017.
This comes on the back of changes made to reporting in the 2017 US census of agriculture that better reflect who serves in principal roles on an operation, but the reported increase in female farmers is not just related to that. The USDA defines the principal producer as the person who runs the farm and makes the day-to-day management decisions. However not calling themselves the principal producer does not mean that women are not involved in the day-to-day decision making on farms.
The 2017 census in the US further revealed that 36% of the 3.4million US producers were women (an increase of 27% over the number counted in 2012) and 78 percent of all female producers, stated they were involved in the day-to-day decisions of the operation. With 59% of women being involved in decision making regarding crops, and 55% of women being involved in livestock decisions.
In the EU the proportion of women managing farms in the EU was 28% according to a report from last year and Eurostats data shows there has indeed been an increase in female farm managers in the EU in the past decade, albeit the increase is smaller compared to what is seen in Brazil and the United States.
Austria is in the top 6 leading countries in the EU regarding the proportion of female farm managers in the country and reported 31%. Lithuania and Latvia have the highest proportion female farm managers with 45%. The UK currently has its first female president of the National Farmer’s Union of England and Wales in its 110 years of history. According to the 2018-19 UK Office for National Statistics annual population survey the number of female farmers in the UK has now reached a figure of 17% as a proportion of all farmers in the UK and figures are showing that there are more female farm managers and owners than before.
A recent survey carried out in women working and living on farms in Scotland revealed that over half of the respondents have a role in both day to day decision -making and major decisions on their farms.
In low-income countries agriculture remains the most important employment sector for women, where 40% of women or more are working in agriculture. However, in those countries women have significantly less ownership or control over farms compared to their male counter parts and compared to women in other parts of the world.
Passionate about the food they bring to the table
Thanks to farmers all around the world, we have food on our tables every day. The cultural practice of passing on large farms intact to one son, which still prevails in most countries, is the biggest barrier to women’s entry to farming and means most women in farming did not inherit farms. For example research in Iowa, which is the most important state for agriculture in the US, showed that the majority of farmland owned by women was purchased (69 percent) rather than inherited (27 percent). According to this research, the motivations for women were: farming was a personal aspiration, they had dreamed of farming for many years and wanted to be in control of their operations.
So what distinguishes many female farmers from male farmers is that farming is not something that was passed down to them for generations. For many female farmers it was a choice they made, something they had to earn before they could start making a difference. But they are living their dream. The result is an incredible amount of passion going into food production coming from women. Women being passionate not only about nourishing their own families in a healthy way, but also their communities and the world. They also actively share their passion on social media. The 2019 Women in Ag survey showed that 95% of women out of the 3000 respondents from the US frequently advocate for the agricultural industry and similar trends can be seen in other countries.
Women in agriculture thrive on 3 big C’s
What women in agriculture seem to have in common throughout different countries seems to be an enormous willingness not only to communicate, but also to connect and collaborate. They connect on social media, women conferences and networks to offer each other emotional support and share information. Last year I was at such an event myself for the first time. I found the Women in Food and Agriculture event (WFA19), bringing women in agriculture from different parts of the world together very inspiring and empowering. It certainly created a feeling of togetherness and to tackle today’s and tomorrow’s challenges for agriculture you cannot have enough collaboration in my opinion. In women’s agricultural networks women are also redefining and expanding the definition of what it means to be a farmer.
A fresh perspective can make a big difference in farming
As women in agriculture often do not have a farming background they can bring a fresh perspective. Women marrying into farming can bring useful off-farm skills to farming, which can help to diversify the business or enhance the financial resilience of it. Due to prevailing social customs and traditional stereotypes the majority of women do not inherit farms, which means they are much less likely to fall into the trap of the attitude “why change, it’s always been that way” and as a result are more likely to be open to try out new things when they work on farms. Consequently women can also be catalysts for change.
Female farmers have a drive to diversify farms
Reports both in the US and in the UK reveal that farm diversification is a very female-led domain. Research suggests that women in US agriculture are more likely to be found in farm operations that add value to agriculture. Value-added agriculture is generally referred to as the process of differentiating the raw agriculture product or commodity, it can also be related to farm tourism.
Level of education
To be able to succeed in agriculture you need to be smart. It is therefore not surprising that according to the latest US census of agriculture 69% of the surveyed young farmers had college degrees – which is significantly higher than the proportion in the general US population.
A study conducted by the Food and Agricultural Education Information System in the US showed that undergraduate women enrolled in agriculture programs outnumbered undergraduate men by 2900 students in 2011. In 2017 Texas A&M University – College Station, the University with the most students in agriculture and most courses on offer in agriculture in the US had a higher number of female graduates than male graduates (693 female degrees vs 507 male degrees)
In the UK, there are now more female students in agriculture and related higher education courses than male students. In 2018, 64% of the students in this field were female according to the UK Education Statistics Agency.
In Brazil Universities such as the Federal University of Paraná in Curitiba 47% of the students that started the agronomical engineering undergraduate program in 2020 are female, which is a large increase compared to the proportion of female students for this subject a decade ago.
So the trend in some of the leading agricultural economies is for more and more women to complete agricultural degrees, meaning women coming to work in agriculture in those countries are often highly educated in agriculture related subjects.
They don’t just become part of farming, but are also infiltrating the companies serving farmers, for example to supply veterinary services, animal nutrition and crop consulting to farms. Others go to work in research contributing to progress the science in agriculture to find new solutions for more sustainable farming practices.
The future for women in agriculture
As agriculture is evolving and becoming less dependent on heavy labour the potential contribution women can make to agriculture is increasing and so are the opportunities for them. At the same time leading companies in the US agriculture sector are starting to announce, their initiatives to encourage and support female leadership roles in their ranks, which was previously unheard of. There are still many barriers to women in agriculture, however the good news is there are indications for a shift towards a more inclusive future in agriculture in important markets for agriculture, which will hopefully also spread to other countries around the world.
The theme of this year’s international women’s day is “Each for Equal” to help promote a gender equal world for a more enabled world. There is still a long way to go to ZERO hunger in the world. Today there are something like 800 million people going hungry plus the world population is growing rapidly and an extra 2 billion people are expected to be part of the global population by 2050.
Fact is that if women farmers had the same access to resources as men, the number of hungry people in the world could be reduced considerably and we would be one step closer to global food security.
So for more progressive agriculture, which is able to meet challenges for global food security, it is important to recognize women’s achievements in agriculture and increase the visibility of the female farmer to counter gender bias and stereotypes, which are harming both women and men.