As long as there have been farms and homesteads, there have been women farmers. It’s only natural, when considering the endeavor of farming or even a weekend homestead, to think about the women who came before us. What did they grow, why did they farm, and how did they farm? While we want to break new ground (figuratively and literally), we also want a path to follow. For many of us, it is the kitchen garden that lures us into our first taste of farming. We want those fresh-from-the-vine tomatoes and the sugar snap peas that don’t even make it to the kitchen, they’re so sweet and crunchy. We want to pick our own organic baby spinach instead of buying it at the store. And mostly, we want to reap the bounty of our own efforts in a very elemental way—cultivating and caring for our land and nourishing our body and soul. This is both the lure and the a reward of farming.
Historically, many women farmed out of pure necessity. Native American women cleared the land, planted the garden, and harvested the crops because men had the jobs of hunting, trading, and going to war. This division of labor dates back thousands of years. The tradition continues to this day, as the second-largest group of women owners and operators of farms and the largest group of minority-owned farms are American Indian or Alaska Native. Ironically, the assignment of primary responsibility for land rights to women in many Native American cultures remains one of the most progressive ideas in rural America today.
Native American women were permitted land ownership before colonists started farming the lands. During the Civil War, it wasn’t uncommon for every husband and brother on a farm to be killed in the war, leaving only women behind. These farms were ultimately taken from the women and given over to other men to oversee. But not before the women had put in so much of the work to keep them running. Following the Civil War this type of shift came during wartime, as men left to fight for their country, leaving behind on the farm households of women, children, the elderly, and the infirm. During World Wars I and II, stories of women actively involved in horticulture and agriculture are well documented. The governments of Britain and the United States used the propaganda of patriotism to recruit women to work on farms in “A Call to Farms,” and to raise food in whatever city spaces they could find. These Victory Gardens of the Women’s Land Army did more than help nations in need of food and workers, they motivated generations of women to take risks, try something new, and push the boundaries of education and occupation that had been conscribed by men. In fact, these wartime efforts of women to grow crops and raise livestock were a significant stepping-stone to women’s obtaining the rights to vote and to own property. From Victory Gardens to today’s women-run farms, land has often found its way into the care of women in the absence of men to work it. Women live longer than men, so women often survive their husband, and are left behind to keep the farm going, or at least scrabble enough out of the property to keep themselves and their households fed and sheltered. 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. Women of the last century preserved their knowledge through gardening and unconsciously (or maybe consciously) waited for their time. Only since 1982 have women enjoyed equal inheritance rights to land when their spouse died. Recently this struggle has evolved to include changing the way we practice farming, as well as the way our society views farms and farming. Women now lead the way in sustainable and humane agricultural practices, conservation of the land they own, and returning farming to its roots in the community. Women-operated farms tend to be diverse, whereas men lead the way in grain and cattle farming.
The value of farm work is obvious and tangible. What is not always so obvious is who is doing that farm work. Up until the 2002 Census of Agriculture, data were collected on only one principal operator (person in charge of day-to-day decisions) of a farm, and this person was usually a male. This approach overlooked the many instances of farms that were co-managed, often by husband and wife. In 2007 the National Agricultural Statistics Service further improved its data collection to include small, minority, female, and limited-resource farm operators. As these new data were compiled, it became clear that more and more women own and operate farms in the United States than was previously known. Although farming is stereo-typically considered a male profession, the 2012 farm census shows that women run about 14 percent of the nation’s farms, and this is thought to be a big underestimate, as many small farms are under-counted. Women are claiming a larger place in agriculture, through all types of farming and in many different ways. Women tend to have less land to work with and less access to the labor and capital needed to get their operations up and running. For this reason, we’re seeing more women pursuing opportunities in sustainable and organic farming where they can farm on smaller pieces of land with less equipment. Women are also putting together farms in different ways than conventional agriculture. Their operations are more diversified and often include educational components. Women have also been really good at developing networks of women farmers to share information. Learning how to farm and create business models can be overwhelming for new farmers. In other scenarios, farmers may be reticent to share information about their businesses, but I’ve found that women who are successful farmers are willing to open up about what worked and didn’t. This kind of peer-to-peer networking has been an important innovation for women farmers.
Women involved in sustainable agriculture are especially interested in multiple factors involved in farming like the environment, health, food, nutrition, and how the farm is connected to the community and the community is connected to the farm.