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Women find a voice in agriculture

By Staff | Dec 28, 2014



Women have come a long way in the world of agriculture, according to Jennifer Barker-Devine, associate professor of history at Illinois College.

Barker-Devine was one of three speakers during a Dec. 16 webinar, the last in a series of three presentations by Women in Ag Learning Network, hosted by Iowa State University. The series focused on women’s roles in agriculture.

She said as the 20th century was ushered in, women could only be farm wives and were listed as dependents of their husbands. They could not sign legal or financial documents.

When they married, everything they owned automatically became the property of their husbands, and that their roles were primarily reproductive – creating the labor force for a farm business – and caring for the family, home and garden.

“In 1938, the Farm Security Administration determined that a woman’s poultry and dairy work provided 40 to 50 percent of the household budget, and that didn’t include any entrepreneurial sales for things like clothing, unusual animals they cared for or taking in boarders,” said Barker-Devine. “They rarely owned any land and were not recognized as farm contributors.”

She said during the 1960s and 1970s, capital-intensive agriculture and estate tax reforms forced women to question their status as dependents and women got more involved in the management side of the farm, including the paper work of the business.

“Women began to ask for more rights, to protect their rights and property,” said Barker-Devine. “They also asked to be classified as co-owners or co-operators.”

Back then, she said, women were not entitled to accumulated wealth in the event of death or divorce.

Women were not counted on the U.S. Ag Census until 1978.

Angela Carter, a doctorate student at Iowa State University, said she has spent her time at the university studying women landowners.

Carter said women are now 30 percent of farmers nationally, and that they own or co-own about half of farm and ranch land in the U.S.

Carter said women tend to look at farming differently than men, seeing land as part of a community – taking a holistic approach to soil health and other nutritional values of a farm, thinking of land as something that draws people together.

She said women are keen about understanding the legacy behind farm ground, because in many cases, they have had to work harder for it and want their successors to know the legacy of the land they pass down.

Carter also said women have not only had the chance to farm the land, but they have also had to face navigational challenges that men have not had to deal with – institutional sexism.

“Though women have had success and have been taking more leadership roles,” Carter said, “they still feel like they have to prove themselves.

“Farming can be an isolating endeavor, and women have had to find places where they feel comfortable sharing their experiences with each other, not necessarily with male farmers. Change is slow, but it’s happening.”

Sara Shepherd is a sixth-generation Iowa farmer, raising purebred Charolais cattle, along with growing corn and soybeans. She began her farming career in 2002 when her father was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease and could no longer do the farming.

She purchased a few head of cattle on his herd dispersal sale and was on her way. That first full year she learned about the Farm Service Agency, made crop input decisions, hired people to help plant the crop, secured bank loans, learned how to drive a pickup or tractor with a trailer behind it and more.

“It was quite a learning experience, but I’ve grown to love it,” she said. “I have a lot of respect for farmers who have done this their whole lives, but as a young female farmer I’ve had to prove myself.

“I’ve had earn my stripes, so to speak.”

Shepherd said people did have more respect for her and her farmer status once they found she could talk the talk and walk the walk.

Barker-Devine said women farmers owe it to themselves and other farm women to share their stories and spread the hope that agriculture is a world where women have a lot to offer.

“It’s harder to get together in a rural area, but we have blogs and social media to get that word out to a broader audience,” she said. “Back in the day, a farmer with all daughters was thought of as kind of a pity of the community because who was going to do the work of the farm?

“It’s still a little that way today, though I don’t think it’s intentional. It’s just the way it’s always been.”

Shepherd agreed.

“It took me 15 years to realize that the opportunity to farm was mine if I wanted it to be,” she said.

Shepherd’s top two things to tell other women who would be farmers is to become educated through programs like Annie’s Project and Extension outreach programs, and to build a support network – places where women can go to ask the questions they need to ask.

“Growing up in an ag community, I took a lot of things for granted,” said Shepherd. “The things we always did were just part of our everyday lives.

“I didn’t understand the significance it all had to the success of our farm.

“I connected a lot of dots along the way once I came back to farm, and I wish I had realized those things when I was younger.”

Barker-Devine said agriculture holds a promising future for women who want to become involved.

“It’s different from a lot of industries, but a lot of women are finding their voice,” she said. “They have a strong historical foundation from which to build.

“We’re making our mark in history and are passing (down) the family farm, too.”

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