The "Grass Ceiling" still exists, despite growth of women farmers

It was somewhere around ten years ago, I was in graduate school and wanted  to write my thesis about how women were changing agriculture. Anecdotally, two different girl friends were starting to farm, and I visited  a dairy woman in Johnstown, Ohio, who was offering a tour of her operation. When I mentioned my idea, she told me to wait. The women’s agriculture movement was coming , she said, but it wasn’t yet a trend.

Roxanne Molnar owns an 80,000 chicken farm in Grantville, PA with her husband.  USDAgov, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Roxanne Molnar owns an 80,000 chicken farm in Grantville, PA with her husband. USDAgov, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Now the likes of Grist and The Atlantic say the time is has come. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service last month released a report on woman-operated farms(pdf.) It found that nearly one-third of American farms were operated by women in 2007. That’s more than 1 million farms, and it’s an increase of 19-percent from 2002, “significantly outpacing the 7 percent increase in the number of farmers overall,” according to the USDA.

But folks at our rural media outlet, like General Manager and small farm owner Ellen Rocco, are circumspect about whether these women are really part of a trend, or just a fad.

The Grist article shows photos of women farmers, and examples of how they are joining the farm-force: an organic vintner in California, a mushroom grower in Cleveland, and a gal who raises Icelandic lambs in Minnesota.

The USDA survey says women-operated farms tend toward this type of diversity.

“Women are much more likely than their male counterparts to operate farms classified as “other livestock farms,” a category that includes horse farms, or “all other crops,” which includes hay farms. Men, meanwhile, are much more likely to run grain and oilseed farms and beef cattle operations.”

The problem, for women farmers at least, is that there’s a lot more money in types of farms favored by men. The USDA finds that the average value of sales at male-operated farms is $150,000, at female-operated farms, it’s $36,000.

Women farmers are above the federal poverty line, but not by much.

And so the question, will the idealistic goals of women like Hannah Breckbill, 25, of Elgin, Minnesota, “to work in something real and be the change I want to see happen in this world,” prove to be a sustainable trend?

Or will they fade like any other fad?

I’ve been waiting a decade for that answer, and it’s still not time for harvest.

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3 Comments

  1. The income disparity represents a difference in attitude…like comparing greed with compassion, the way one either dominates or respects the environment can account for a great deal of money.
    Each day, on NPR, we hear that little ad from "America's Gas Alliance" in which an Ohio farmer supplements the income of his family farm by allowing gas drilling on his land. No mention is made of the destroyed acreage, the impact to the local water resource, the noise, traffic, and disturbance to the countryside, or the disposal problem presented by frack water.
    The difference between taking the money and running, or building something real and sustainable for the future will keep many women and other discerning farmers at the lower end of the income scale, but they will live a healthier life, and sleep with a clearer conscience, knowing that they have worked to make the world a better place. Think about it.

  2. For clarity, let's call the "Grass Ceiling" the "Crass Ceiling", and understand that a moral compass is what keeps one from breaking through.

  3. When Julie and talked about this, I also mentioned that north country farming income has often been subsidized by an off-farm income. This may not be true on the very large dairy farms (say, over 500 milkers), but on the "traditional" family farm of several hundred head, or on multiple product farms and homesteads, one of the partners often has a supplementary job. Frequently, this is the wife or woman partner (in a mixed gender partnership or marriage). Why? I think it was kind of by default. Men are usually physically stronger and typically more adept at mechanics and other farm-related skills (not always, so don't get your knickers in knots). This means if one person were to be left alone on the farm, it often made more sense for the man to stay at home and the woman to pick up extra income off the farm. Nonetheless, women participated and continue to participate very significantly in the day-to-day operation of farms, even if they work out.