In honor of Women’s History Month, our next podcast features Audra Mulkern, founder of The Female Farmer Project and forthcoming documentary film project Women’s Work: The Untold Story of America’s Female Farmers. Mulkern also hosts a podcast dedicated to featuring female farmers and providing a way for them to share their stories, struggles, and successes.
The project offers female farmers a platform for sharing their stories while also honoring the critical role that women have played in food production throughout history, which is a story often cast to the wayside. The reasons for the discrepancy between female and male food producers are many, from the antiquated assumption that male children will inherit the farm over female children to a tendency among women to be less outspoken about our achievements.
Although the average farmer in the US is a white male in his late fifties, the 2017 Census of Agriculture noted something unique about female farmers. Today, 29.13% of farms are women-led compared to only 13.6% percent in 2012. The overall number of female farmers has also increased during that period from 31.5% to 36%. This means that there are more than 500,000 women leading farming operations across the country and 250,000 new women farmers since 2012. Now, 56% of farms have at least one woman participating in the operation.
So what role are women playing when it comes to producing food? It’s hard to tell based on data from the Census of Agriculture. The document asks farmers to identify the principal producer of the farm, which is defined as the person who makes the day-to-day management decisions. As Mulkern notes in the podcast, the USDA made changes to the Census form that now allows for four names to be listed for each operation instead of only one.
Just because someone isn’t listed as the principal producer, however, doesn’t mean that he or she isn’t playing a critical role and making necessary contributions to the overall operation. Roughly 78% of female producers who responded to the survey reported that they are involved with making day-to-day decisions.
The area of agriculture where women appear to be making the most impact, however, is the beef industry. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, beef cattle operations reported the highest number of female principal producers (229,000) and the most non-principal female producers (355,000). There is still progress to be made, however. The data also shows that farms with female principal producers tend to be smaller than average in both acres and value of production.
Through her work, Mulkern has had the opportunity to learn more about the many different women who are drawn to agriculture today. From women taking on multi-generational farming operations to women becoming first-generation farmers, there are countless opportunities throughout the food system for female voices to make a difference. Despite their varying backgrounds, they all face a similar set of challenges: poor access to land and credit, discrimination from private and public institutions, and a lack of childcare. Unfortunately, many women who work in the US agriculture industry are also subject to sexual harassment.
On top of these barriers, women are often treated differently by their male colleagues in agriculture. As eighth-generation Tennessee farmer Lorie Fleenor told National Geographic recently, it’s often easier for her husband to handle business transactions or to take phone calls for her family’s farm.
“Even though I run the farm and make the decisions, they [male farmers] don’t want to talk to me about when to cut hay, or when to sell cattle, or how much rain we’ve gotten. They want to talk to a man,” she said. “I guess being a woman, you have to go above and beyond to prove yourself.”
These problems aren’t unique to farmers in the US either. According to the International Livestock Research Institute, two-thirds of the world’s 600 million low-income livestock producers are rural women who are responsible for the day-to-day animal management, including processing, marketing, and selling animal products. The organization found that when women control income, 90% is invested back into their household compared to only 30% to 40% when income is controlled by men.
Livestock also provides women with financial security, independence, and a good source of vital nutrients. In many developing nations, women have unequal property rights to men. In Kenya, women comprise 80% of the agricultural labor force and provide 60% of farm income, yet own only 5% of land, for example.
If you are interested in learning more about women in the food system or are a female farmer interested in finding support here are a few resources to explore:
Follow The Female Farmer Project on Instagram at @RootedintheValley
RFD-TV’s FarmHer TV series showcases women in farming throughout the United States. It also hosts the GROW event for women in agriculture.
The Center for Rural Affairs aggregates resources dedicated to supporting women in food production.
The Money Where Our Mouths Are project is an investigation into the funding disparities between women and men in the agtech industry. It raises important questions, highlights gaps, and provides testimonials from female entrepreneurs in the industry.
Early episodes of the Sustainable Dish podcast featured many female farmers like Joneve Murphy, a farmer and photographer who traveled the world documenting women in agriculture.
The USDA maintains a website providing information for women in agriculture about the programs that it offers. Unfortunately, no federal programs exist specifically for women farmers and ranchers.
Be sure to download this episode and let us know your favorite takeaways on social!
Know of a good resource for female farmers? Let us know by sending a note to SacredCowBlog@gmail.com