Women's Work Is Never Done On The Farm, And Sometimes Never Counted

Dec 11, 2014
Originally published on December 12, 2014 9:45 am

The average American farmer is a white man in his late 50s. Or at least, that's who's in charge of the farm, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But the number of female-run farms has tripled since the 1970s, to nearly 14 percent in 2012. And if you dig a little deeper, you'll find women are showing up in new roles. But because of the way farm businesses are structured, women's work often isn't included in those USDA counts.

Sondra Pierce and her husband, Matt, have been growing beets, hay and sunflowers in rural Boulder County, Colo., since they graduated from high school. The young couple didn't wait long to start a family.

"Soon as I had my son, I would put his car seat in the tractor and he would ride with me," says Sondra.

Outfitting the tractor with a car seat was out of necessity. The farm wasn't paying all the bills. So Sondra's husband took on a full-time job off the farm to make ends meet.

"He would go to work, 9 to 5, and I would do the farm work that needed to get done. And then he would get home and do a lot of the other stuff," she says.

That left Sondra to pick up some of the domestic duties, too. And she's emblematic of a whole segment of female farmers, part of a husband-and-wife team attempting to keep a multigenerational farm afloat.

In the U.S., married couples run about a third of farms. But because of the way farm operations like the Pierces' are structured, men show up in data more often.

"Technically, I don't own the farm," says Sondra. "I mean, I just work on it. Most of the things we sell are always in his name."

In 2002, the USDA began collecting information — like gender and age — from more people on a family farm, not just from the person in charge. That's led to a broader picture of who does the farming in the U.S. Still, there are limits, and sociologists say expectations about what constitutes women's work on the farm can be slow to change.

"Women have always worked in agriculture, historically. I think a key issue is whether or not it's counted," says Julie Zimmerman, a rural sociologist at the University of Kentucky who studies how women's roles on the farm have changed over time.

"If you see working on your farm as being part of your role as the spouse or the wife, as helping out, then you might not even recognize it as being 'working on the farm,' even if you're doing it all the time," Zimmerman says.

The federal census of agriculture, conducted every five years, shows the percentage of women who farm climbing, slowly. But Zimmerman says that may not be entirely accurate. The picture would be more complete if the census asked more specific questions about who does what kind of work.

Mary Kraft walks through the milking parlor of Badger Creek Dairy outside Fort Morgan, Colo. She and two of her employees whistle at the black and white cows, coaxing them into the stalls.

Every day Kraft's dairy milks more than 5,000 cows, each sporting a Bluetooth collar that collects data each time the animal is milked. She says as farms have become more high-tech, the skills needed to be a successful farmer have changed. Now, you need to know how to program a milking machine and drive a combine.

"In the past you had to be this big, burly guy with forearms the size of a post in order to turn a tractor, because they didn't have power steering," she says.

Kraft oversees her high-tech dairy from an office on-site. Her MBA hangs on the wall by her desk. She calls herself a farmer, but she's also a CFO and a manager of 75 employees.

"It used to be you didn't inherit if you were a girl from a farm family," she says. "And I think [now] people are going, 'I want somebody who's going to carry on the farm. So if it's the young lady ... awesome.' "

And when that young woman starts working on the farm, in any capacity, the question will be whether it's counted.

This story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The average American farmer is a white man in his 50s. At least, that's who’s most often listed as running the farm, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But, dig more deeply into the data and you find the number of female-run farms has tripled since the 1970s, and the roles women play on farms is also changing. Luke Runyon from member station KUNC reports.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Sondra Pierce and her husband Matt have been growing beets, hay and sunflowers here in rural Boulder County, Colorado since they graduated high school. The young couple didn't wait long to start a family.

SONDRA PIERCE: Soon as I had my son, I would put his car seat in the tractor and he would ride with me.

RUNYON: Outfitting the tractor with a car seat was out of necessity. The farm wasn't paying all the bills So Sondra's husband took on a full-time job off the farm to make ends meet.

PIERCE: He would go to work, you know, 9 to 5 and I would do the farm work that needed to get done then. And then he would come home and do a lot of the other stuff.

RUNYON: Leaving Sondra to pick up some of the domestic duties, too. And she's emblematic of a whole segment of female farmers, part of a husband and wife team attempting to keep a multigenerational farm afloat. In the U.S., married couples run about a third of farms, but because of the way farm operations like the Pierce's are structured, men show up in data more often.

PIERCE: Technically, like, I don't own the farm. You know, I mean I just work on it because you know, most of the things that we sell are always in his name.

JULIE ZIMMERMAN: Women have always worked in agriculture, historically. I think a key issue is whether or not it counted.

RUNYON: Julie Zimmerman is a rural sociologist at the University of Kentucky. She studies how women's roles on the farm have changed over time.

ZIMMERMAN: If you see working on your farm as being part of your role as the spouse or the wife, as helping out, then you might not even recognize it as being working on the farm, even if you're doing it all the time.

RUNYON: The Federal Census of Agriculture conducted every five years shows the percentage of women farmers climbing, slowly. But Zimmerman says that may not be entirely accurate. The picture would be more complete if the census asked more specific questions about who does what kind of work.

Mary Kraft walks through the milking parlor of Badger Creek Dairy, outside Fort Morgan, Colorado. She and two of her employees whistle at the black-and-white cows, coaxing them into the stalls.

MARY KRAFT: So the milk comes out of a cow at 101 degrees.

RUNYON: Every day, Kraft's dairy milks more than 5,000 cows, each sporting a Bluetooth collar that collects data each time the cow is milked. She says as farms have become more high-tech, the skills needed to be a successful farmer have changed. Now you need to know how to program a milking machine and drive a combine.

KRAFT: In the past, you had to be this big burly guy with four arms that were the size of a post in order to turn a tractor, right, because they didn't have power steering.

RUNYON: Kraft oversees her high-tech dairy from an office on-site. Her MBA hangs on the wall by her desk. She calls herself a farmer, but she's also a CFO and a manager of 75 employees.

KRAFT: It used to be you sort of didn't inherit if you were a girl from a farm family, and I think any more people are going, I want somebody who's going to carry on the farm, so if it's the young lady - awesome.

RUNYON: And when that young woman starts working on the farm in any capacity, the question will be whether it's counted.

For NPR News I'm Luke Runyon in Fort Collins, Colorado.

INSKEEP: That story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production.

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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.