WASHINGTON – The popularity of the “God created a farmer” ad during the Super Bowl last month was widely praised as a fitting tribute to the millions of people working in agriculture.
But of the more than a dozen pictures of hardworking and sensitive farmers and ranchers in the commercial, only a handful of the images shown during the two-minute ad were women.
The slight is being viewed by some as symbolic of the battle women across the country are engaging in as they play an increasing role in a field traditionally dominated by men.
“That image of (a man) is so embedded in all of us that it’s hard to imagine that women are part of farming when they show an ad like that. On one hand, it’s a really nice tribute to agriculture, but on the other hand, they’re missing more than half the population that’s involved with it,” said Denise O’Brien, who has been farming with her husband for almost 40 years in Atlantic, Iowa.
“Women, because they are going against the trend of males dominating agriculture, it takes people a while to make a head adjustment that ‘Oh, I’m talking to this woman who is a farmer rather than talking to a farmer’s wife,’” she said.
For decades, women were viewed as the supportive behind-the-scene sidekicks to their husbands and sons who were planting seed, fixing equipment and feeding livestock. In most cases, women were depended on to keep the house running and make sure the farm’s paperwork was up to date and the bills were paid.
Today, things have changed. Now, more women are being thrust into farming as they outlive their fathers or husbands, leaving them with the responsibility of deciding what to do with land that in many cases has been in the family for decades.
More women also are making the decision to enter agriculture on their own accord with a focus largely on smaller livestock operations, organic crops or farms that grow fruit and produce for the local community.
In the U.S. Agriculture Department’s 2007 Census of Agriculture report, the government found women farm operators increased 19 percent from 2002, far outpacing the 7 percent increase in the number of farmers overall.
The government census allows a farm to have multiple operators. Women were the principal operator, the individual in charge of day-to-day operations, on 14 percent of farms and ranches compared with 11 percent five years earlier.
The government is updating its agricultural census later this year and the number of women involved in farming is expected to be “much higher,” Kathleen Merrigan, USDA’s second-most powerful official, said last month.
Until she resigned last week, Merrigan was in charge of overseeing the daily operations of the department.
As more women enter the male-dominated field, they’ll be managing an even bigger share of farmland, especially in the agriculture-intensive Midwest. In Iowa, 20 percent of the state’s farmland is owned by women and 10 percent is owned by single women over the age of 75, according to Michael Duffy, an economics professor at Iowa State University.
As more farmland changes hands, those figures are expected to grow. University researchers have estimated more than 200 million acres of farmland in the United States will change hands by 2027, with women potentially owning a majority of the land.
That’s good news for the growing number of women across the country who are members of the National FFA Organization, which first allowed women to join in 1969. The group, better known by its former name, the Future Farmers of America, is made up of 44 percent women, compared with 20 percent in 1988.
During USDA’s annual outlook conference last month near Washington, Merrigan saw firsthand evidence that although women are making progress in agriculture, many don’t believe they are receiving the attention that reflects the more active role they are playing.
For the first time, the USDA held a 30-minute session to allow women at the mostly-male-attended event to network. In the room, USDA set up two “idea boards” asking women what they wanted to see at next year’s conference. One respondent suggested having “more women as speakers throughout the agenda” while another proposed a paper “on the important role of women in agriculture.”
Merrigan said she had expressed concern to conference organizers because a poster touting the event had only one woman on it: her.
“I think we are making progress, but it’s time to accelerate,” Merrigan said in an interview. “It just takes time to shift everybody’s thinking to the realities of today. We just need to get everybody out of thinking about things in the same old way. It’s not just about women; it’s about the changing demographics of this country.”
To do that, dozens of groups that focus on helping women break through the “grass ceiling” of agriculture have sprung up across the United States. Several have limited their membership to only women after observing that women, especially older ones, were more outspoken and willing to ask questions without men present.
A popular program called Annie’s Project teaches classes in 27 states to help foster problem solving, recordkeeping and decision-making among farm women. The classes regularly fill up. Another group, the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, founded by Denise O’Brien in 1997, hosts meetings to give advice and allow women to ask questions and talk about their experiences on the farm.
In Washington, the USDA, which in the past has been accused of discrimination by some women farmers and ranchers for denying them loans and other assistance, has undertaken a series of initiatives to reach out to female farmers. The USDA has developed an outreach program to increase the number of women owning and operating profitable farms and agriculture-related businesses. The department also has women in a number of high-profile positions, including the undersecretary for food safety and its chief of staff.
“Women are starting to rise up through the ranks and be recognized,” said Ann Sorensen, research director for American Farmland Trust, a group focused on protecting the country’s farm and ranch land. “Although within the state commodity groups and state farm bureaus there is very, very little representation, embarrassingly little representation by women, but I think that is going to change.”
Danelle Myer, a fifth-generation farmer in Harrison County, Iowa, hasn’t let the challenges of both starting a farm or being a female in agriculture deter her. After growing up on a farm, she graduated high school and distanced herself from the farm life that she “didn’t want to have anything to do with.” But 20 years later, drawn by the lure of nurturing the land and growing food in an environmentally friendly way, she returned.
Myer, who started with a half-acre of land, is poised to expand her profitable business to 5 acres within a few years. For the first time, the organic vegetable farmer is planning to hire part-time workers in 2013 to help her pick tomatoes, lettuce, spinach and potatoes and do other work on the farm.
When she started out, Myer, now 41, said she didn’t know what local farmers would think of her trying her hand at organic farming while they tended to their thousand-plus-acre corn and soybean operations.
“I’ve actually been ... very welcomed by my community,” Myer said. “I feel like those older, white men are admiring women like me because they know how hard the work is. Being female I don’t think has been a barrier to me in my situation. I feel like it makes me different and people appreciate what I’m doing.”
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