Every five years, the USDA conducts their Census of Agriculture, the last one completed in 2012 and the next to be sent out this coming December. The data the USDA receives from this survey is used to evaluate the growth and direction of the agricultural industry as well as highlight areas that might need more attention than others, both on the state and national level.
As of the last Census, there were 11,127 principal women farmers in the state of Missouri. These are the farms in which all decisions are made by the woman operator. When compared to the overall national women operators, Missouri women made up 4 percent of the total farms ran by women, working 3 percent of the total acreage owned by women, and contributing 3 percent of the total economic impact of women operators. The numbers appear small when shown in percentages, but we must keep in mind that Missouri is only one of 50 states. When compared to a national average (total national numbers divided by 50), Missouri has 93 percent more women operators, working 38 percent more acreage and contributing 34 percent more to the economy.
Why are those numbers important? The USDA has records of an agricultural census dating back as far as 1840, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the census begin to record the number of women operators and not just farmers as a whole. Since then, although nationally the total acreage farmed has dropped by 11 percent and the total number of operators by 15 percent, the number of women operators has increased by 78 percent and the total acreage farmed by women has increased by 71 percent.The last century has seen much change in how women are viewed in the workplace. For the agricultural industry, the farm makes up both the home and the workplace. The numbers above do not take into account women whose partner or family owns and operates a farm; quite often these women are required to take on the leadership role for a time due to unforeseen circumstances. Then there are the women who have joined the agricultural workforce in education, research, sales, marketing, finance and media, to name just a few of the agriculturally linked jobs that women hold today.
Great strides have been taken by our culture and our government to ensure that women in ag continue to grow. Programs such as Annie’s Project provide women learning opportunities in finance and estate planning. The Farm Service Agency has loan programs specifically in place for women farmers, from farm ownership to microloans geared towards niche farming.
Truck farms, farmers markets and agritourism farms are considered some of these niche markets and allow smaller operators, of which women are the majority, to connect to the public and show how farming works. Social media has become a platform that many women farmers use to promote our industry to a curious public (i.e. Modern Day Farm Chick, the Pioneer Woman).
As society changes and advances in ag continue, it is up to us, women and men both, to see that our heritage continues. Let us strive, as women, to make this industry as open, welcoming, challenging and supportive as any other.