Women produce half the food consumed by more than six billion people in the world, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.  While women are commonplace as farmers in less developed continents like Africa and Asia, women are gradually assuming greater roles as food producers in the more developed parts of the world, such as the U.S.

The 2012 Census of Agriculture reports that females were the principal operators of 14 percent of the 2.1 million U.S. farms in 2012, the same percentage as in the 2007 census.  The total number of farms dropped from 2.2 million farms in 2007; there was a slightly larger decline of women than men as principal operators.  

However, women-operated farms that earned more than $100,000 yearly increased the most from 2007.  As principal operators overall, women tended to manage smaller farms than men in terms of annual sales, for 91 percent of farms with females as principal operators earned less than $50,000 in 2012.

The 2012 census report also indicates that women were second operators on 67 percent of nearly one million farms that had more than a single operator.  

My recent experiences speaking at a Women in Agriculture meeting in South Dakota and to other farm women’s groups previously are consistent with what the statistics say.  Most of the 200 women with whom I visited last week are grain farmers and/or livestock producers.

Several unmarried women who attended the event work with their parents on family-owned agriculture operations that entail several thousand acres and some have their own enterprises.  You bachelor farmers and ranchers who are reading this, are you paying attention?

Several factors contribute to the increase of women’s involvement in contemporary U.S. agriculture.  Movement toward gender equality in what traditionally was a predominately male occupation for the past couple centuries in this country is foremost.

Take the agriculture-related occupation of veterinary medicine as an example.  In 2010 there were equal percentages of males and females practicing veterinary medicine, but 78 percent of veterinary medicine students were female, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association; many of these women treat farm animals.  

While some people suggest the development of mechanical devices to make strenuous tasks easier contributes to women entering agriculture, this is probably not the case; men and women can repair farm equipment, pull calves…and cook.  Women or men now take the lead in securing marriage partners too.

Gender roles previously were–and still are–shifting.  The U.S. had a female Secretary of Agriculture during the recent Bush administration; movement toward gender equality can also be detected in the current United States Department of Agriculture.

The current Deputy Secretary of Agriculture is a woman.  One of seven USDA undersecretaries is female; five of the nine office chiefs are female.

Women were key to settling rural America from the beginning.  Agriculture in Native American communities flourished because women planted, hoed, watered and harvested the corn, squash and other crops consumed by their families and tribes.  

The grains and vegetables produced by America’s first farmers were shared with everyone.  As European, Asian and African settlers replaced Native people on the land, males generally have been portrayed as assuming most of the farming and ranching activities.

Mari Sandoz’s book, Old Jules, tells a different story, for Mari, her mother and two sisters mostly tended the orchard, crops, gardens and the livestock on their western Nebraska settlement.  Many pioneering women worked alongside their husbands and sons on their farms and ranches, and took over entirely when the men hunted, fished and took part in political functions.  
Rural women had key roles in the settling of rural North America in ways that often are not acknowledged.  In my area of western Iowa, as well as in other rural areas in the late 1800s, most townships had reading clubs, food-processing bees and sewing circles, which rural women attended monthly or whenever they could.  

These clubs provided a great deal of social support, psychological therapy and literary stimulation to women who often were homebound except when the family attended church or traveled to town for occasional shopping.  

While many of the men’s activities took place around socializing in taverns, politics and sports, women’s activities were more likely to involve family and community life through church, education and the arts.  Annie’s Project, which educates farm women about risk management, and Women in Agriculture are examples of contemporary organizations for women involved in agriculture, along with many other thriving rural women’s auxiliaries and clubs.  

When my family and I moved to Iowa in 1979 after Marilyn and I left positions at the University of Virginia, Marilyn was invited to join several community women’s organizations.  They were important to helping her find friends and opportunities for herself in our new community.  

Some of the women whom Marilyn first met in these organizations remain her good friends today and they are my good friends now too.

Michael Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa clinical psychologist (and fly-fisherman) who lives on the farm he shares with his wife.  Contact him at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.