Who are female farmers? They're often educated, near cities — and in need of day care.

March 5, 2021

Female farmers need child care as much as their white-collar counterparts. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Although at least one in eight U.S. farms has a woman in a leadership role, scant economics research has focused on who they are or why they go into farming. Now, a study of Census data from U.S. counties provides the first comprehensive look at who these female farmers are and how they farm — a critical step toward better supporting gender diversity in agriculture.

“Farming has historically tended to be a male-dominated occupation,” said lead author Claudia Schmidt, an assistant professor of agricultural economics at Pennsylvania State University. 

The paper, published Feb. 19 in Food Policy, found that women were more likely to operate a farm near an urban center and sell directly to consumers; more likely to operate a small farm; and more likely to go into farming in a county with a higher median household income, which the researchers interpreted as more equitable income distribution. 

Women also represented a greater share of farmers in counties with more child care options, suggesting that they — much like women in every other profession — have more time to pursue a career when they aren’t overwhelmed by child care duties.

The authors were adamant that when it comes to gender diversity, “We are not advocating for anyone to be in farming or not to be in farming,” as co-author Stephen Goetz, a professor of agricultural economics at Pennsylvania State University, told The Academic Times

However, the authors did note that women tend to run different types of agricultural operations than men, and thus women’s contributions could be important for the stability of the American food system. 

The study used data from the Agricultural Census, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The Agricultural Census records the gender of up to four “principal operators” of each farm, and the researchers used that information to identify counties with relatively higher proportions of part- or full-time female farmers. They compared the farming data with general characteristics of individual counties, including poverty rates and household income.

The statistical model in the study found that farms with female principal operators were found more in counties with better access to day care, higher wages outside farming and more women with a college education. According to the data analysis, the number of day cares per 10,000 people in a county accounted for more than 1% of the variation in the number of female farmers in a given county, while the average non-farm wage accounted for 4.5% of the variation. In counties where women were more educated, there were also generally more female farmers — the percentage of women with at least a bachelor’s degree contributed to 10.1% of variation.

After the researchers reviewed close to 3,000 U.S. counties, it became clear that farms managed and/or owned by women were disproportionately clustered around urban areas on the West Coast and in the Northeast. The notable exception was northeastern Arizona, where women make up the majority of farmers in the Navajo Nation Reservation.

Although it wasn’t the point of their research, the authors noted that American economists have long ignored female farmers in the country. Schmidt said that when women do come up, they’re usually studied as part of the “farm household.” 

“Farms are unique in that they are both businesses that need to be managed and places where the owners reside,” she said. “In the past, virtually all studies have assumed that male farmers make the decisions, even if females (their spouses) also work on the farm. By focusing on female operators, we can study their decision-making and farming practices.”

In her keyword search of existing literature, Schmidt had to omit the words “nutrition,” “dietary,” “obesity” and “safety” to weed out all the articles that mentioned gender but were actually about women and nutrition. Of the 238 Food Policy articles that initially appeared to be about female farmers, only two were actually about female farmers in the United States. She got similar results from searches in six other mainstream agricultural economics journals.

“Women face different challenges,” Schmidt said, “such as barriers to enter farming, challenges in acquiring farmland, lower profitability of operations, constraints to networking with other farmers, lack of government support.” 

As she wrote in her article, scholars and policymakers need robust research of these farmers "not only for reasons of equity — and historical neglect of women in agriculture — but also because emerging research suggests that females operate their business differently and may have positive broader economy-wide impacts."    

The study, “Female farmers in the United States: Research needs and policy questions,” published Feb. 19 in Food Policy, was authored by Claudia Schmidt, Stephan J. Goetz and Zheng Tian, Pennsylvania State University.

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