Recently a widow whose husband passed earlier this year asked me to address the topic of how to keep on farming.  She said “I’m finding out it isn’t going to be easy but I want to try.”  “Linda” and her husband farmed together since they married in their teens almost 40 years ago.  Linda wants to continue the farm operation with her son-in-law, who has helped for the past several years. 

Linda also found support from her brother-in-law, who helped her find a lawyer who charged by the hour, instead of their farm business lawyer who asked a fee of two percent of the value of the estate.   She also found that several of the landlords from whom they leased farmland wanted a one-year lease.  “I think they believe I won’t want to continue,” Linda said.

After expressing my sympathy to Linda I also expressed my admiration for her bravery.   I remembered an article I had reviewed and recommended for publication in a 2001 issue of the Journal of Agricultural Safety and Health by University of Kentucky researchers, Amy Scheerer and Victoria Brandt.   

Scheerer and Brandt reported that the seven farm widows they interviewed “had little time for bereavement when much of their time and attention was directed toward necessary chores and making decisions about economic issues of the farm.”   Linda also found what Scheerer and Brandt further reported:  “support from family, friends and neighbors went beyond emotional comforting to providing help with farm chores and guidance on financial decisions.”

Linda has many female cohorts in the farming industry.  According to a 2011 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report, women make up 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing nations around the world.  More often, these females are agricultural laborers than farm operators. 

In the U.S. women comprise 14 percent of the main operators of some 2.2M farms, which is up from previous years, as reported in the most recent (i.e., 2007) U.S. Census of Agriculture.   The 2007 Census of Agriculture indicates that the average U.S. farm headed by women is smaller (i.e., 210 acres) than the average of all U.S. farms (i.e., 418 acres), and more likely devoted to vegetable or specialized animal (e.g., dairy, long-haired goat) production.

But women comprise 67 percent of second operators of U.S. farms that have more than a single operator.  These women are doing far more than “keeping the books” and handling the paperwork at the Farm Service Agency.  Like Linda–who says she is running the combine this fall, almost half of women who operate U.S. farms are managing the livestock (e.g., swine, dairy) unit and field cropping. 

Women are also more likely than their husbands to be working off the farm, when both spouses are alive.  When faced with the loss of their spouses, farm women have tough decisions to make:  “Will there be enough income if I quit my job to take over the farm?  Will I be able to afford the health insurance that came with my job?  Am I up to the task of running the farm?”

Linda grew up on a farm and helped her husband with farm work during all their years together, so she was familiar with the complex demands of running a farming operation.  But as she lamented, “I’m finding that everyday there are many challenging issues and I am trying to hold it together and keep building what my husband and I had worked so hard for in the last 39 years.”

Linda’s comment brings up a matter that Scheerer and Brandt also observed: “Three [of seven] women felt an initial need to maintain the farm in honor of their husbands, and were hesitant to make changes after the death.  The farm was a connection of home, family, work and income, which provided livelihood, purpose, common goals, and sense of self.”

Key questions that must eventually be decided are these: “Am I taking over the farm operation to preserve my husband’s wishes and his memory?  Are there children or others whose farming methods I approve and who will benefit and perhaps take over or help me?”

In Linda’s case, she likes farming and she has the help of a son-in-law and daughter who desire to farm.  It can be said of Linda and her surviving family: “Farming—it’s in their blood.”

In Linda’s situation, like other farm families, reminders of the lost loved one are constantly present on the farm because work roles and family life are blurred together in the same place.  From time to time Linda may need breaks away from the farm to obtain new perspective.

I am grateful to Linda for her willingness to share her situation with me and with readers of the Farm and Ranch Life column.  She reviewed and approved this article.  She deserves our highest respect.

– By Mike Rosmann, Ph.D.

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