The changing economy and Americans’ newfound interest in local, organic and artisanal foods are driving a revival of farming in this country, and the ranks of new farmers include more women than ever.
The number of female farmers has been on the rise for more than a decade, and experts expect that new census figures from the USDA this year will show even larger numbers of women turning to agriculture for a career.
Beth Holtzman, outreach education coordinator at the Women’s Agriculture Network at the University of Vermont, said changes in the way we count farmers and consumer food trends are contributing to those statistics.
“The census now recognizes that people don’t farm alone,” she said. “Farm operations aren’t typically just one farmer, and that left room for more women to be counted.”
The United States Department of Agriculture conducts an agricultural census every five years. Results of the 2012 survey aren’t available yet, but the 2007 information shows a growing trend in women-run agricultural operations.
– About 30 percent, or more than 1 million, of the country’s 3.3 million farmers were women in 2007. That was a 19 percent increase from 2002.
– Of America’s 2.2 million farms, about 14 percent were run by women.
– Between 2002 and 2007, the number of farms that had women as principal operators increased by almost 30 percent.
– Women farmers are much more likely than their male counterparts to operate specialty agricultural businesses that the USDA classifies as “other livestock farms.” For instance, women are more likely to have horse farms or hay farms. Men are more likely to have farms that specialize in grain or beef cattle.
In response to the growing number of new farms, The University of Vermont offers classes and other resources for rookie farmers, both male and female.
“We have seen a high percent- age of beginning farmers who are women,” Holtzman said. “A beginning farmer is anyone who has been in the business for 10 years or less, so that can mean daugh- ters who are taking over the family farm from their parents, or people who are choosing farming as a second career or a retirement career.”
Many new farmers — men and women — who are going in- to the field as a second job or a retirement career are choosing niche, specialty farming over large-scale, traditional commodities farming, Holtzman said. They launch small organic produce operations, goat dairy farms or other niche operations that let them sell directly to consumers, she said.
Many women who already participate in family-run conventional commodities farms are adding complementary niche operations to supplement the farm’s revenues in tough times, Holtzman said.
Some women, however, are still drawn to the large-scale, more traditional types of farming, she said.
“Female farmers are as diverse as agriculture,” Holtzman said.