The social structure of the American family is changing and farm families are in step with these changes.  The Pew Research Center released two reports recently (May 29 and June 11, 2013) that document significant behavioral and demographic shifts in families over the past 50 years.

In 1960, 3.5 percent of married mothers in the U.S. were the primary wage earners in their families.  That percentage rose to 15 percent in 2011.  Single mothers who were the sole providers for their families rose from 7.3 percent to 25.3 percent during that same timeframe. 

Mothers are now the sole or primary provider in more than 40 percent of U.S. families.  Farm families are changing as well, with more than a million female farmers who are the primary (14%) or secondary (16%) farm operators, according to an April 29, 2013 USDA report. 

Women are entering agriculture at a faster rate than men; 19 percent more women entered farming in 2002 to 2007, compared to 7 percent more farmers overall, says the 2007 Census of Agriculture.  But their farms are smaller and only 5 percent of female-operated farms have annual gross sales of $100,000 or more.  Most rely on off-farm jobs that supplement their agricultural enterprises.

The most recent Census of Agriculture, which farmers completed earlier this year for the 2012 crop year, will likely indicate even more involvement of women in agriculture.  Females have increasingly gravitated toward agricultural training in high school and college and comprise 44 percent of the current National FFA Organization membership.

Total family income is higher when women are the primary wage earners in two-parent families, than when men are the primary providers, according to the recent Pew reports.  Wives are becoming better educated but still lag behind their husbands overall, for only 23 percent of families has a mother who is more educated than her husband.

Women are replacing men in some of the better-paying agriculture-related careers that require advanced education, such as veterinary medicine, where the 2010 nationwide class of graduates was 77 percent female.  Women are increasing rapidly in agronomy, marketing and in the USDA.

As might be expected, the roles of fathers in families are changing as women enter the U.S. workforce.  In 1965 fathers spent 2.5 hours per week with their children, but in 2011 fathers spent 7.3 hours weekly with their children, according to the Pew Research Center.

Fathers also spend more time these days helping with housework (9.8 hours per week in 2011) whereas in 1965 fathers spent about half that amount of time helping with housework.  Fathers now are the stay-at-home parent in nearly 190,000 households, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

A recent study by University of Missouri researcher, Adam Galovan, involving 160 married parents with children, indicated that couples were happiest when the fathers helped with household chores and child care than when the fathers participated little in these activities.  Research shows that children of couples who shared parental duties were better adjusted than children of couples who did not share parental duties.

Fathers don’t get to spend as much time with their newborn or newly adopted children as the mothers. In the U.S., paternity leave averages less than a week, while maternity leave at the same companies averages six to twelve weeks. 

Most European countries offer longer maternal and paternal leave for newborn care and child adoption.  In many European countries new mothers are guaranteed job security for six months to three years, while the fathers have several weeks’ paternity leave.

Many U.S. farm and ranch couples had to share roles out of necessity during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, while the general U.S. trend toward sharing roles occurred gradually over a longer time.  Several studies that examined farm and ranch families during the Farm Crisis (e.g., Carson, Araquistain, Ide, Quoss et. al, 1994; Rettig, Danes & Bauer, 1991; Lobao & Meyer, 1995) determined the families who coped best were those who shared their strengths in running the agricultural operation and the household.

Stressed farm people who were assisted emotionally and financially by their partners during this difficult time had less need for professional behavioral health services.  Adversity has always been a stimulus for farm families to adapt.

The current agricultural population are the survivors of previous episodes of stress that sorted out those who were less successful.  Survivors relied on their genetic predispositions to adjust to change and knowledge acquired from their predecessors in agriculture to somehow carry on. 

We know agricultural producers have strong inclinations to do what it takes to help humans endure, for farm and ranch people are endowed with powerful drives to care for the families, communities and humans in general.  A successful aging farmer once told me he and his wife “hang in there together” whenever a difficult financial era occurs. 

This couple is wealthy and healthy today.

Dr. Rosmann is a Harlan Iowa psychologist and farmer. Readers can contact Dr. Rosmann at the website

By Mike Rosmann, Ph.D.

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