Women own half the farmland in the United States. Nearly 60 percent of farms in the country have at least one woman at the helm. And yet, according to Pacific Standard's analysis, farms run by men earned almost twice as much on average as those run by women in 2017, the latest year for which federal data is available. Despite record numbers of women in agriculture, the gender wage gap persists.
The reality is, of course, more complicated. For example, women tend to own smaller farms that typically make less money. Many female farmers and landowners are trying out new approaches to agriculture—making "value-added products" like jams and cheeses, renting to conservation-minded tenants—that aren't always valued in the U.S. food system. Still, things are improving: U.S. Department of Agriculture census data shows women's sales have increased across every class of farm over the last three decades.
Here's what we know about women in agriculture in 2019.
Small Farms, Smaller Profits
Decades of USDA data shows that women have lower farm sales and income than men. In 2012, women farmers made 24 percent of the national average in sales—selling about $45,000 of products compared to $187,000 for farms overall. In 2017, women made 57 percent of the national average in sales.
In the years since, women have become better represented in federal data. After the 2017 agriculture census counted multiple primary producers for the first time, the USDA recorded more women in agriculture than ever before, now making up 36 percent of farmers—a 27 percent increase from 2012.
But the gap persists. Some of this disparity can be attributed to farm size: In a highly consolidated industry—in which large corporate firms dominate more than half of the country's production—women tend to own smaller farms, thus yielding smaller profits. According to the USDA, almost a third of female-run farms make less than $1,000 a year, and the vast majority earn less than $10,000. Only 16 percent make $50,000 or more, as opposed to 27 percent for male-run farms.
Institutional Barriers to Agriculture
It's not just a size issue, however. For decades, institutional barriers have kept women out of agribusiness. In 2008, the USDA was ordered to pay out $1.33 billion to Latinx and female farmers who were denied loans because of their gender and race. This problem still plagues the department: On average, women received less money through federal farm programs, but slightly more than men in conservation and Commodity Credit Corporation loans in 2017.
Carol Chandler, who helps run her family's ranch in California's Central Valley and serves on the board of the industry group Western Growers, says she's used to being the only women in agriculture spaces. "A lot of women think it's a man's world," she says. "It doesn't have to be."
Still, many women want to work outside the influence of agribusiness, and their efforts are not always well received, according to Angie Carter, assistant professor of environmental justice at Michigan Technological University. "There's still a lot of very gendered social norms about who is a farmer, who makes decisions on the land, what should a farm be used for ... all rooted in this patriarchal capitalist food system we have," she says. "Some of these women don't want their farms to be corn and bean farms. They want the wetlands, they want streams kids can play in. But we're not holding that up as a successful farm anymore—we're holding up these giant huge farms."
Shut Out From Conservation
At a time when commodity prices are falling and farm bankruptcies are on the rise, women are helming some of the fastest-growing agriculture sectors: farm-to-table and agritourism, including operations where farmers sell value-added products. But research shows female landowners and operators often face pushback for farming outside the norm.
In her 2019 study of women landowners, Carter found many experienced sexist backlash from their male tenants, neighbors, and families on their conservation decisions. Others were denied loans from the Farm Service Agency. "The expectation is that women will be placeholders," Carter says. "They can own the land, but aren't supposed to do anything drastic with it. ... They're not supposed to take active part in what's happening. Everyone who does is seen as a crazy woman, a bitch—they're called these things by their neighbors."
One woman Carter interviewed decided she wanted to convert part of her farm along the Mississippi River back into wetlands, but the male farmer who worked the land wanted her to drain it to grow more corn. When she declared her plans, Carter says, the woman was ostracized by her community. She had to attend church in the neighboring town.
Female Farmer Networks
To combat these challenges, many women in agriculture have come to rely on informal networks. The Midwest-based non-profit Women, Food and Agriculture Network leads meetings for women landowners to share their expertise outside of the typical, male-dominated places in agriculture: the feed shop, the co-op, Farm Bureau meetings.
Jean Eells, a contractor for WFAN who manages her own farm in Iowa, helped develop the group's program model almost 10 years ago. At each meeting, groups of 20 women gather to discuss challenges they're facing with their land—the seed salesman who keeps asking to speak to their husband, the tenant who refuses to plant cover crops. Mostly they discuss "not being taken seriously," Eells says.
Since these networks have begun to spread across the country, receiving support from the National Resource Conservation Service, Eells says she's started to notice more advocates and researchers asking about the impacts on women. "In the early years, I was always the one in the meeting to bring it up," she says. "That's probably the biggest change since I've started—the recognition that women are rightful decision-makers when it comes to conservation and their land."