Iowa Public Television


Women Gaining Lead Roles in Agriculture

posted on April 14, 2006

Whether it's sitting behind the wheel of the combine during harvest ... or poring over spreadsheets at the kitchen table, more and more women are taking the lead role in farm operations. In fact, the government says the number of women who are principal farm operators has doubled since 1970 ... and now stands at more than a quarter-of-a-million. Even so, agriculture still is seen as a male-dominated industry, which is why networks of female farmers have sprung up across the nation. Their reliance on one another has led to a growing savvy that is changing the face of American agriculture. Laurel Bower Burgmaier explains.

Women Gaining Lead Roles in Agriculture

April Hemmes, Farmer, IA: "I always knew growing up that I wanted to have something to do with agriculture... I tried a lot of other things. I did research at Iowa State University. I worked at a performance line testing facility, and worked for a Congressman in Washington, D.C. But, I always knew I wanted to come home to the farm."

April Hemmes lives on the century farm her great-grandparents bought in 1901, where she farms approximately 1,000 acres of corn and soybeans, and 30 acres of alfalfa. She also takes care of a 50 head cow/calf herd, with help from her daughter.

Hemmes started farming in the mid-1980s with her grandfather, who continued to help her with the operation until he passed away at age 101. And while her father is retired, he still helps during harvest. Hemmes' husband, on the other hand, has a job in town. It's a role reversal of what most would expect in a farm couple.

April Hemmes, Hampton, IA: "My husband makes a point of letting people know he is not a farmer, nor does he ever want to be. And sometimes I get from people, 'Oh, your husband doesn't farm with you?' And I say, 'no'. 'Well, what is wrong him?' Nothing, he's perfectly fine...He gets to do a lot of the running this time of year and the cooking, and that doesn't bother him a bit."

According to the most recent numbers from the 2002 U.S. Agriculture Census, women own nearly half of the country's farmland. And, the number of women as primary operators of farms increased by 13 percent from the previous census in 1997. While April Hemmes is comfortable in the agriculture world, many women are not.

April Hemmes, Hampton, IA: "A lot of women that I have met through the years work just as hard as their husbands out on the farm and are a very important part of that operation, whether they're in the office doing the book work or out running the equipment side-by-side with their husbands. They rarely get the credit that they deserve."

Being married to a farmer or being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated business has its challenges. In an effort to address some of the needs specific to farm women, organizations are popping up nationwide. Annie's Project is one example. Founded in 2002, it's a comprehensive educational program and support network for Midwestern farm women taught in a computer lab.

Ruth Hambleton, Annie's Project: "Sometimes it can be lonely out here. You feel like people just don't understand the circumstances we find ourselves in. This is not only our business, this is our home, it's everything. So, a support system that understands our needs for education, as well as socialization --that's all met in Annie's Project."

Ruth Hambleton, Farm Business Manager and Marketing educator at University of Illinois Extension, is the founder of Annie's Project, an organization named after her mother Annette Fleck. Known by her friends as "Annie", she married a farmer in northern Illinois in 1947, where for the next 50 years, they faced many challenges. Through it all, Annie helped keep the farm business running by keeping careful records. While Annie passed away in 1997, Hambleton wanted to share her mother's story of strength by giving other women the tools needed to handle their own farm-related struggles.

Ruth Hambleton, Annie's Project: "We put them through these training processes and they go home and start asking questions. In their feedback, they say they are more able to carry on a conversation or they hear something and it doesn't sound so foreign to them anymore."

Farm women find answers, strength and friendship in Annie's Project. Another organization created to help guide women producers is the Women, Food & Agriculture Network, or WFA, a nonprofit education and farm advocacy organization.

Denise O'Brien, WFA: "Women, Food & Agriculture Network links and empowers women to build food systems and communities that are healthy, just, sustainable and that promote environmental integrity."

Having farmed with her husband since 1976, O'Brien long has been an advocate for family farm issues and is currently a candidate for Iowa's Secretary of Agriculture. She's seen a lot of changes in farming over the years and is optimistic about the role women are playing in an organic and sustainable agriculture movement.

Denise O'Brien, WFA: "In this emerging agriculture, women seem to be in the lead, it's a type of farming that seems to fit her ability to farm. She wants to farm a smaller amount, more intensively. She wants to grow food for her community, so her market is very close by, definitely close by."

Next week, O'Brien talks about how women have become the nation's primary operators of small farms. And, we'll meet her friend Cynthia Vagnetti who has spent the last 15 years documenting women involved in this type of farming.

For Market to Market, I'm Laurel Bower Burgmaier.


Tags: agriculture farmers gender news women