Salgu Wissmath for HuffPost

Women Who Farm Are Finally Getting Counted

The government has undercounted female farmers for decades, fueling an agriculture industry that has tailored itself almost exclusively toward men.

Megan Brown will soon be the first single woman to run her family’s 200-head cattle operation, which includes several ranches just outside Oroville, California. She lives alone on one of those ranches, 3,500 acres of land that she is helping her aging parents run as they move toward retirement.

The other farmers in her area, almost exclusively older white men, aren’t sure what to make of her. When they gather at a local cafe to swap stories and farming tips, she isn’t invited. She’s basically given up on trying to fit in those circles.

“Everybody thought I was going to get married young, and get married to a cowboy,” she said. She thinks that’s the reason her dad never taught her how to drive the big truck and stock trailer when she was growing up, skills she now has to master. “All of a sudden, they just expected me to be really good at it.” 

The ranch has been in her family since the 1930s. Her great-grandparents, grandparents and parents did the work of the farm together, as couples. But soon, it will be just her. “It would be nice to have someone to help,” she said. “But you know what? I can hire that, and they’d probably do a better job than a husband.”

Megan Brown poses for a portrait on her ranch in Butte County, California.
Megan Brown poses for a portrait on her ranch in Butte County, California.

Assumptions about who will be working the farm are built into the equipment itself. For Brown, it’s the muck boots — the women’s boots on the shelves at her local farm supply store are “pink and polka-dotted and come halfway up your calf.” The men’s boots are black, come all the way to the knee and are cheaper. It’s the tools she uses to castrate male cattle, which are too big for her small hands. And it’s the tractor, built for someone much taller than she is, which forces her to contort her body to reach the pedals as she drags a meadow — which can sometimes take eight hours. 

“Sometimes I felt like a woman had to be twice as good to feel that she was adequate,” said Joan Maxwell, who runs a large dairy farm with her husband in Donahue, Iowa. “You start talking the lingo, and you do see a lot of men take a step back and go, wow, she actually does know what she’s talking about.” 

The federal government has made similar assumptions, too. For over a century, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture failed to count women accurately. Taken every five years, the census includes production levels, income and demographic information about farmers. One number in particular stood out in the 2017 update, which was released last year: a 27% increase in the number of female farmers. 

That would be huge if it were true. But a closer look shows that not only has the number of women in farming likely remained at least stable since the 2012 census, it may even be lower than it was in the past. 

The total number of farms actually went down between 2012 and 2017, and just 16% of female producers in the 2017 census said they had been farming for five years or less. The increase is due to the fact that the USDA actually tried to count female farmers this time around, expanding its definition of “farmer” to capture women who have often been considered — or considered themselves to be — the wives and daughters of farmers, even if they do important work on the farm. 

“Women, for many years, would not claim the role of farmer,” said Doris Mold, a dairy farmer near Cumberland, Wisconsin, who sat on a USDA panel that developed new questions designed to count women more accurately. “They’ll say, ‘I’m a farm wife, or a farm helper,’ when they really are a farmer in their own right.”  

Women’s Work, Too

Until the 2002 USDA census, each farm was only allowed to list a primary operator — and for most households, that meant the man. The number of women farmers increased 12.6% once more than one person could be listed. 

The most recent census also asks specific questions about who manages the finances and decision-making on the farm — areas women have long been involved with even if it wasn’t commonly recognized as “farm work.” The agency also retired the term “operator” and instead allowed up to four people to be listed as “principal producers.” 

Brown gives one of her pigs a belly rub on her ranch.
Brown gives one of her pigs a belly rub on her ranch.

The new questions identified over 257,000 more women who are actively engaged in the industry, many of whom have been there for years. Seventy percent of female producers identified in the most recent census have been farming for more than a decade, and 60% are over the age of 55. 

The change isn’t trivial: An array of advocacy organizations, government agencies, and companies rely on the census to understand who is involved in farming. The census “gives us an idea of the population we’re serving,” said Reana Kovalcik, associate director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, an organization that advocates for policy reforms to support sustainable agriculture. The USDA uses the census to develop programs and allocate funding. The private sector uses it to develop agricultural tools and machinery. 

The historic, systemic undercounting of women has had ripple effects. Without accurate data showing the extent to which women are actually involved in farming, the agriculture industry has tailored itself almost exclusively to men. 

“People take notice of numbers,” said Mold, a lifelong farmer and the former president of American Agri-Women.

The Tough Economics For Female Farmers

The latest census finds that, in fact, 36% of United States farmers are women. 

Over 90% of them are white; discriminatory lending practices and lawsuits have forced many Black and indigenous women, like their male counterparts, off their land, if they even owned land to begin with. A recent investigation from The Counter the found that the USDA undercounted Black farmers for decades, just like it did women. When it made adjustments to the census to better count them — and found 9% more Black farmers in the process — the department suggested it had brought more Black farmers into the industry, the investigation found, when in fact it was just finally identifying people who were already there. 

While the changes to the most recent census found 246,000 more white women farmers, it only identified 2,900 more American Indian or Alaska Native women and 2,400 more Black women — making up 2.2% and 1.1% of all female farmers, respectively, a proportion that was essentially unchanged from 2012. 

The census also found that women were more likely to be relatively new to the industry than men — about 30% of women said they have farmed for less than 10 years, compared to a quarter of men. Women also had smaller farms, by more than 100 acres on average, and their farms make less money; 62% of female-operated farms make less than $10,000 per year. 

Scenes from Brown's ranch in Butte County. She refers to it as Brown Ranch, but it is also known as Table Mountain Ranch.
Scenes from Brown's ranch in Butte County. She refers to it as Brown Ranch, but it is also known as Table Mountain Ranch.

Just about one-third of female farmers said farming was their primary occupation, compared to nearly half of men. But the majority of the USDA’s funding programs benefit the largest farms and the farmers with the highest incomes. Take, for example, the Trump administration’s Market Facilitation Program, more commonly referred to as trade aid, which was meant to help farmers suffering because of the administration’s trade war with China. More than 90% of the $8.5 billion disbursed in the first round of the farm bailouts went to white male farmers, many of them the wealthiest farmers in the country. 

This is indicative of a larger systemic problem within American agriculture: USDA farm subsidies and loans flow to the largest farms at the expense of smaller, often more sustainable operations. According to the census, 14,000 more farms with at least one male principal producer received commodity loans than did farms with a female principal producer. It was slightly less common for women to get federal payments for conservation programs than men, though the amount they received was on average about $600 more.

And while 29% of farms with male principal producers receive other federal farm payments, averaging about $1,368 per farm, just under 20% of farms with female principal operators do, and they average about $200 less. A USDA study found that in 2015, “commercial farms” ― defined as those that make over $350,000 in gross cash income ― received more than four times as much in government payments as did other, smaller farms. 

USDA funding to support smaller farms is a fraction of the size of that for large commodity operations. Over 20% of the USDA’s budget goes towards major farm programs including conservation, commodity, and crop insurance. But the majority of working-land conservation, crop insurance, and commodity funds go to farms with a gross income over $500,000. About a third go to farms with over $1 million in income. Less than 7% of the USDA budget is typically set aside for all other programs — including those that target female farmers, minority farmers and beginning farmers. 

Female operators tend to be concentrated on farms with market values of $25,000 and under. Just 124,050 female primary producers in the country are on farms with market values over $50,000, compared to nearly half a million men.  

For all but the largest commodity farms, agriculture isn’t a stable source of income. Most farms in the U.S. are residence farms, where operators work off-farm jobs and that make less than $350,000 in annual gross farm income. There are 1.22 million of them in the country. But they’re also the most likely to lose money from the farm when all is said and done. The only category where the majority of farms, 82%, didn’t lose money was commercial farms, or those making more than $350,000 — which were far more likely to be run by men. 

This discrepancy is, in part, why more female farmers have a primary occupation that is not farming than men, agricultural statistician Bryce Stucki said. 

“Because women also have a harder time in the general economy and their earnings are less and they have less wealth, it makes it harder for them to get into ag in the first place,” Stucki said. “And since ag policy is weighted to big farms, it’s hard to break in unless you inherit or take over the family farm.”

Claiming A Space

Agriculture is a large, complex industry, and women’s experiences vary drastically from community to community and crop to crop. Many women run large farms in partnership with their husbands; others might start a small, diversified operation that sells at farmers markets, or come back to work on a family farm after a career outside the industry. For women, claiming a space in the industry can be a difficult, introspective process. 

Lydia Whitman, who grew up on a farm in Minnesota and now runs one with her husband in Clinton County, Iowa, said that despite her lifelong involvement in agriculture, she didn’t start introducing herself as a farmer until just a few years ago. 

“I was tired of people directing all the ag questions to my husband and just asking me how the kids were,” she said. “That transition came when I realized I had a knowledge that actually had value, and could contribute to the decision-making process.” 

Even for women who have inherited a farm after their husband or father dies, it can be hard to access USDA resources, said Wren Almitra, who coordinates the Women, Land, and Legacy program for the Women’s Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) in Iowa. 

The agency doesn’t do a great job of marketing its programs beyond those they’re already serving. And in many cases, it was the husband who handled paperwork and maintenance of programs and registration with the Farm Service Agency, the local USDA offices that disburses federal farm loans, payments and price supports, Almitra said. “So literally women often don’t know they’re supposed to go to these offices after their husband has passed away.”

Brown drives on her ranch in Butte County.
Brown drives on her ranch in Butte County.

Many women who want to get into farming begin with a small-scale farm — think the kind that has a booth at the local farmers market.

“I know very few women who look around and say, everyone here is growing corn and soybeans, let me invest a million dollars into an operation so I can compete for the same low prices that everyone else is,” said Bridget Holcomb, WFAN’s former executive director. “Women look around and ask, ‘Where are we getting our food? What could be grown here? What does my family want to eat? What can I provide to my community?’”

Advocates would like to see the agency do more to focus specifically on women, but it’s been hard to make that case without data to back it up. Now with more accurate numbers, many women hope to see themselves better represented in the industry — at conferences, in leadership, in the equipment store.

When Brown takes over her family’s farm in the next few years, she knows she’ll still be an outsider in her immediate community because she’s been so outspoken about sexism in the industry. But, over time, she hopes the rest of the agriculture community will be more welcoming.

“Make space for us,” said Brown. “We’re here, and we have been here.”

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