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Women Farmers: One Million Strong

Posted by Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan in Conservation USDA Results Food and Nutrition Farming Rural Initiatives
Feb 21, 2017

In the four years I’ve served as Deputy Secretary, I’ve talked with thousands of women in agriculture – from young women thinking about entering farming to older women who have been tilling the soil for decades.  Each of their stories is powerful on its own.  But taken together, they have been an inspiration to the entire country. And today, we know that there are nearly one million of these stories around the country – nearly one million women farming and ranching on America’s working lands.

A study released today by USDA’s Economic Research Service, Characteristics of Women Farm Operators and Their Farms found that the number of women-operated farms more than doubled between 1982 and 2007. When all women involved with farming are added up – including primary and secondary operators – they are nearly one million strong and account for 30% of U.S. farmers.

The study also found that the number of women-operated farms increased in all sales classes, suggesting that size does not matter when it comes to agricultural opportunity for women.

This puts real numbers to a trend that many of us have seen firsthand: there is serious momentum behind women in agriculture.  This is personally gratifying for me – supporting women in agriculture has long been one of my passions. And it is a sign of the growing importance of USDA efforts to reach women farmers and ranchers.

While at USDA, I’ve made this a priority. For instance, in the last four years, USDA’s Farm Service Agency has made significant modifications to its County committee structure to ensure fair representation of minority and women producers.

We are also highlighting the accomplishments of women in agriculture, even as we work to ensure that USDA programs serve them better. Through the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, we’ve seen how women are driving the development of local and regional food systems across the country.  Last fall, I penned an op-ed with another women leader in agriculture, New Hampshire Agricultural Commissioner Lorraine Stuart Merrill, about the contributions women are making in the Granite State’s economy through local food.

The ERS study also finds that women are leaders in livestock production.  Nearly half of our country’s women-operated farms—those for which a woman is primarily responsible for making the business decisions—specialize in livestock. During a White House Google+ Hangout about women in agriculture, I talked with Cory Carman, a fourth-generation rancher from eastern Oregon who left farming for another career only to follow her heart back to Carman Ranch to raise cattle.  Now she is the operator of a thriving direct-marketing beef business.

For me, one of the most exciting findings of the ERS report is that younger women are entering farming faster than older women are leaving. Women also have a higher land ownership rate than their male counterparts, with 85% of women owning all of the land they farm, compared to 66% of their male counterparts.

But women farmers and ranchers still have a ways to go. More women than men rely on off-farm income, suggesting that farming cannot support them full-time. Only 5% of women-operated farms have sales of $100,000 or more.

Tonight, I will be traveling to LaCrosse, WI to join WomenShare 2013, an event focused on women in the food system. This will be my last official travel as Deputy Secretary of USDA. As I prepare to leave my post as the highest ranking woman at the Department, know that I will continue to work on advancing women’s opportunities in agriculture. One million women is only the beginning.

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Sue King
Apr 29, 2013

This is a very interesting and important study based on Census of Agriculture data. USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service is in the final weeks of asking farmers across the nation to fill out their 2012 Census of Agriculture forms. This is the kind of very important work that results from the Census data that farmers, growers and producers provide. The results of the 2012 Census of Agriculture are critical to updating this information and showing the strength of women's role in agriculture. There is a direct connection between the information we ask for in the Census and other surveys and the policies, programs an insights the Deputy Secretary offers in her article. Thanks to each and every agricultural producer for filling out his or her 2012 Census of Agriculture form.

Wendy Baroli
Apr 29, 2013

As one of those women farmers who life you initially touched in a roundtable three years ago in Reno, NV - I can say that yes, this is just the beginning as more and more young women, transitioning career women, and urban farmers take feeding their communities to a whole new level. You will be deeply missed as a voice for the small farmer in an ever increasing move to continue to consolidate and centralize food production.

Wendy Baroli

Apr 30, 2013

looking for assistance. Most males, that I have dealt with, do want to assist me..Need some assistance to making my farm work and profit. I have 10 acres and need assistance with loans and grants. Thank you!

May 02, 2013

Madella, look at the website for resources in your state. Or check our website for information on farm financing and startup strategies: Drop us a line or call directly for information on farm loans and information resources in your area. We're a nonprofit that works for family farms and rural communities.

Ms. Merrigan - thanks so much for your leadership at USDA. Because of this new emphasis on recognizing women and minority farmers, we're able to assist those folks here in Nebraska and other states. -- Wyatt

Sharon Sachs
May 06, 2013

USDA has definitely showed increased interest in and response to women farmers, and Ohio has noticed. Ohio FSA and Ohio NRCS are great resources with great staff! Through our web site and our Facebook Women Farm, Ohio we urge women farmers to use government resources, to learn what the Census tells us about women's contribution to Ohio agriculture, and encourage and assist women farmers to develop one another. Ohio looks forward to your continued leadership.

May 10, 2013

"One of the most exciting findings of the ERS report is that younger women are entering farming faster than older women are leaving. Women also have a higher land ownership rate than their male counterparts, with 85% of women owning all of the land they farm, compared to 66% of their male counterparts."

While this may be true, it is also becoming increasingly difficult to get into the agriculture industry, especially as a young person. My husband and I (who both grew up on farms) are both under age 30, working off-farm jobs, but would love to buy a 40-50 acre farm and raise cattle and sheep. Although, compared to other "Millennials", our finances are in excellent shape, we're being required to provide a down payment of $30,000+ before we can even consider purchasing a farm that's more than 10 acres. That's pretty discouraging, especially when there's other bills to pay, not to mention if we ever want to start a family and have expenses go toward that. Even more young people would return to ag, but there are a lot of barriers restricting who can enter the industry.

sonja kristensen
Feb 28, 2015

my mother has been leasing her farm to a local farmer for years she is a senior lady who paid for this land by her self besides the lease fee which is less than 100 per acre is there any money she should be entitled to she doesn't not want to share crop she has been cash rent for over 30 + years!!!

Mar 07, 2015

With the price of corn and soybeans down much lower than earlier years, are there other crops that some of you are considering for irrigated farm land because the costed for fertilizer, seed, etc. are still so high, not sure if this can even be a break even year for corn or soybean crops. I am a part owner of an inherited farm in central Nebraska.

Jul 31, 2016

I have also experienced the unwillingness of male farmers to consider me a viable entity in the farming world. In an age where the Nation's young are opting out of America's backbone of professions it is truly sad that gender may play a role in quickening the fall of the American Farmer. Knowledge is power, teaching and helping each other is a collective trait that benefits the whole. We all work hard enough in a profession of high risks, asking for help from a fellow farmer should not be a risk too!