Farm Aid News & Views June 1997
FARM AID NEWS & VIEWS
Volume 5, No. 6
- FARM WOMEN WORK ON AND OFF THE FARM TO KEEP
THE FAMILY FARM ALIVE
- THE ROLE OF WOMEN ON THE FARM
- WOMEN WORK OFF THE FARM TO KEEP
- WOMEN FARMERS BATTLE DISCRIMINATION,
- FARM WOMEN DEAL WITH ISOLATION, STRESS
- WOMEN WORK TO PROMOTE THE FAMILY FARM
FARM WOMEN WORK ON AND OFF THE FARM
TO KEEP THE FAMILY FARM ALIVE
Around the world millions of women are responsible for
growing food for their families and their communities. In the
United States, women do everything from the physical labor of
farm work to raising the children to keeping the books to
working off the farm. Women's work is essential to the
survival of the family farm.
There is a common misperception that the role of women in
family farming is secondary to that of male farmers. Although a
relatively small percentage of farms are operated by women,
women's contributions to family farm life are quite significant.
Seventy-five percent of farm women work either on or off the
farm, as compared to 53% of all women nationally who work
outside the home. Over ninety-two percent of female-operated
farms are small family farms, taking in less than $50,000 in gross
What does it take to keep the family farm alive? It takes getting
up at 5:30 a.m. to do the chores, going to work off the farm,
making supper, doing the evening chores, working on the
books, and trying to get some sleep. For young women it also
means taking care of the children. For many, it involves
meetings, organizing and even going to Washington to tell their
There are 1.9 million farm operator households in the U.S.
today. According to a 1994 report by the USDA Economic
Resource Service, 6% of these households are operated by
females, 23% are operated jointly by husband and wife, and 71%
are operated by husbands only. (This study did not include the
200,000 farms operated by unmarried men.)
One reason for the relatively low percentage of female operators
in farm families is that although female children of farm
operators often get a share of the financial inheritance, the
operation of the farm is usually turned over to the male
children. Women often don't become farm operators until after
their husbands have died. Indeed, among the 111,000 female
operators, 37% are aged 65 or older.
Another reason for the low percentage of women operators is
that farm surveys often require only one person to answer as the
farm operator, and usually it is the man.
In addition to being farm operators and farm wives, many
women are also farm landlords. According to a 1993 Economic
Research report, 40% of private agricultural landlords are
women as compared to 31% men and 29% joint male/female.
One reason for this is that as the population of farmers ages, the
women tend to outlive their husbands, and gain control of the
land. The average age of female landlords is 66 years. Forty-
three percent of the women landlords live on a farm, but most
farm landlords are not farm operators.
THE ROLE OF WOMEN ON THE FARM
Statistics about women farmers do not fully convey the
contributions of women to farming. In fact, many of the women
who are not considered "operators" do a great deal of work on
Farm wives often tend the animals, plant the garden, and take
care of the bookkeeping. In addition, many women do
"invisible" farm work such as running farm errands while
doing household shopping, preparing meals for hired help, and
participating in the planting and harvesting, when needed.
Jean Wyont, a Wisconsin dairy farmer, says, "Farm women have
to do the chores, help in the fields and keep the family together.
Their work is literally never finished."
Claryca Mandan, a Native American rancher of the Hidasta tribe
from Fort Berthold, North Dakota says, "A lot of women who
are silent partners in the farm don't get enough recognition.
Women often provide assets, land, off-farm income, farm labor
and management to the operation." Mandan says Native
American women receive even less recognition than non-
WOMEN WORK OFF THE FARM
TO KEEP OPERATION AFLOAT
Women work not only on the farm, but off the farm as well. In
today's farming economy, where the average income from
farming is only $5,000, two-thirds of all farm households are
forced to have one or more of their members work off the farm
just to make ends meet. Off-farm work can also provide health
insurance and other essential benefits. Whether or not they
work on the farm, women often work many hours off the farm
to keep the operation going.
The work of farm women is valuable in many ways, including
financially. According to the USDA-ERS study, where women
helped manage the farm or worked off the farm, the household
took in a higher income.
Claryca Mandan is an example of a farmer who works on and off
the farm to support her operation. She operates a 70-head
cow/calf operation with her husband in Fort Berthold, North
Dakota. Mandan and her husband almost lost their farm during
the financial crisis of the 1980s. They were forced to sell their
cattle and go through the net recovery buyout in order to hold
on to their farm. Last year, Mandan's husband worked full-time
as a long haul trucker while she ran the ranch and took care of
their four children. Mandan estimates that she has held down
18 or 19 wage jobs in her life to help keep her family's farm
While most farmers would prefer to work their own land, many
can not afford to do so. It is an unfortunate irony that many
farmers are forced to work off the farm in order to generate
enough income to make the necessary farm payments.
The story of Carroll Supanchick, a 56-year-old dairy farmer in
Nebraska, is typical. She and her husband Bob, 64, live on 160
acres of their own homestead, but no longer do the actual work
on the farm. They rent their piece to another farmer because it
brings in more income than if they worked it themselves.
Meanwhile, Carroll works 32 hours a week at a tractor store 30
miles away, and is preparing to take on a second job as a real
estate broker. Bob also works part time off the farm. The
Supanchicks have passed on the rest of their land to their sons
and daughter. These grown children have their own families
and are also forced to combine farming with off-the-farm work.
Supanchick deeply misses the farm work she used to do,
including the milking, and was heartbroken to have to sell their
Regardless of whether women are working on or off the farm,
farming is a core part of their identity. As Supanchick says,
"We're farmers whether we're here or doing something else.
We're still farmers ... I was determined that we weren't going to
give up, and God willing, we won't give up."
Women often have to prove themselves in the farm business
world before they are taken seriously. Supanchick describes how
customers in the tractor store where she works initially wanted
to talk to "someone who knows something" -- discounting her
lifelong farming experience due to her age and gender. But she
gained confidence in her own knowledge and now is appreciated
by her customers and employer.
WOMEN FARMERS BATTLE DISCRIMINATION,
Women face discrimination in many aspects of farming. Many
of the problems facing women have been documented in the
1997 report by the USDA Civil Rights Action Team, published in
response to ongoing criticism of discrimination and lack of
diversity among its employees.
One problem is the under representation of women and
minority groups on elected local and county committees that
implement farm programs. These committees hire a county
executive director who then hires a county office staff. FSA
county offices handle the processing of farm operating loans,
among other transactions with farmers. In 1994, 94% of all
county committees had no female or minority representation.
Though women represented 28.8% of eligible voters, they held
only 1.5% of county committee seats. The numbers have
improved slightly in the last few years, but women still
represent only 7% of committee members. The lack of
representation is most dramatic in the Southeast where the ratio
of men to women is 2,287 to 121.
The lack of diversity on county committees may contribute to
women having less access to credit than do white male farmers.
Because female-operated farms tend to be smaller, family farms,
they are subject to the same problems facing all limited-resource
farms. One female farmer in the USDA report felt that the
"single largest problem for women is to be taken seriously by the
Jean Wyont has often had to fight the "old boy's network" that
makes it difficult for women to be recognized as farmers. Wyont
and others feel that the USDA needs to do a better job of
documenting the role of women on the farm. "Women farmers
face all the same problems as men. Women should get credit for
being farmers and be recognized as equal partners in the farm
Claryca Mandan says it is hard to break into agriculture as a
woman. Women are not recognized as equal partners even
when their name is on the mortgage. "Women can do all the
management and bookwork and be out there helping in the
fields but the banks and government just want to deal with men.
Native Americans in general have it hard enough breaking into
the credit system. It's even more difficult as an Indian woman."
The USDA report calls for sweeping organizational changes
including outreach to socially disadvantaged farmers, providing
remediation for past discrimination, firing USDA employees
who do not uphold civil rights, and diversifying the work force.
This is not the first report of its kind to be published. Reports
dating as far back as 1965 have documented discrimination in
the USDA -- but have not resulted in positive changes. It
remains to be seen whether this report will lead to concrete
changes toward ending discrimination and giving all farmers a
fair opportunity to survive.
As to the current publicity about USDA discrimination against
minority and socially disadvantaged farmers, Claryca Mandan
says, "If it just raises public attention with no real change in
servicing, nothing will come of it. The USDA's sincerity will be
judged by the delivery of services."
FARM WOMEN DEAL
WITH ISOLATION, STRESS
A 1996 survey conducted by Lutheran Social Services of the
South of three rural churches in Texas highlighted the isolation,
hopelessness and bitterness experienced by farm women on a
daily basis. Major stresses included book work, old machinery
and the need for off-farm employment. They also cited having
little money for extras and suffering poor family
communications as triggers of personal stress and a feeling of
One of the biggest stresses facing farm women, according to Jean
Wyont, is finding their own identity. "With all the different
roles farm women play it is often difficult to find a few minutes
Claryca Mandan and her family know too well the isolation that
many farm families face. She and her family live 50 miles from
the nearest town, which means that she and her children have
to travel 100 miles round trip each day to go to school or buy
In addition to managing the ranch, Mandan works as a farm
advocate, providing financial and credit counseling to Native
American farmers on six reservations in Montana, North
Dakota and South Dakota. She says, "The lack of credit
opportunities for Indian farmers has meant that the agriculture
industry has passed us by. Many of us are still struggling for
electricity, fencing, and water."
In her role as an advocate, Mandan has seen the effect of stress
on farm women and their families. When financial problems
hit, the tendency is often to turn inward, deepening a sense of
isolation. Mandan says, "Women are often the first to reach out
and call for help. Women are more adaptable and better able to
handle the emotional stress that accompanies a financial crisis."
Farm advocates and hotlines can be a vital resource for farm
families in trouble. A 1995 study by Alannah Fitzgerald for New
York FarmNet found that women in crisis who were able to
contact a farm counseling program gained a greater sense of
empowerment and were better able to access resources and
WOMEN WORK TO PROMOTE
THE FAMILY FARM SYSTEM
Ever since the end of the 19th century, when Mary Ellen Lease
exhorted farmers to "raise less corn and more hell," women
have been at the forefront of the movement to organize farmers
to fight for economic and social justice.
Whether taking care of farm business or traveling to
Washington to tell their stories and to demand legislative
changes, farm women have been at the heart of the struggle.
They understand that changing farm policy is essential to saving
the family farm.
Jean Wyont is a good example of a farmer who works on and off
her farm to keep the family farm alive. Wyont milks 43 cows on
139 acres in Chetek, Wisconsin. She also works as a farm
advocate for the Land Loss Prevention Project and chairs the
Credit Task Force of the National Family Farm Coalition. In her
role as a farm advocate, she takes phone calls from farmers all
over the country and works with them to restructure their debt
and stay on their farms. Wyont estimates that she has helped
more than 1,500 farmers stay in business.
One of the reasons Wyont is so effective at helping farmers is
that "you can't tell me anything that I haven't tried on my own
farm." She encourages farmers to stand up for themselves, at
county offices and local banks.
In her position with the National Family Farm Coalition,
Wyont has testified before Congress, conducted interviews with
the media, and held trainings for farm advocates from across the
country. Wyont says, "Women can make the difference.
Nobody is going to do it for us. It means being organized and
being movers and shakers."
Claryca Mandan has a similar motivation for continuing in her
role as a farm advocate. Citing the rapid decline of Indian
agriculture on Fort Berthold and reservations across the country,
she says, "If someone doesn't keep trying to make changes then
there won't be an agricultural industry on reservations. If I can
keep a few families on the land and they can raise up the next
generation who know Indian agriculture, then I will have
achieved something. That will be my legacy."
"Civil Rights at the USDA," USDA, Civil Rights Action Team,
"Farm Family Empowerment -- A Valuable Benefit of the NY
FarmNet Program," Alannah Fitzgerald, Cornell University,
"Farm Women Blend Farm and Off-Farm Work," Mary C.
Ahearn and Janet Perry. Rural Development Perspectives, vol.
9, no. 3, June 1994.
"Structural and Financial Characteristics of U.S. Farms, 1993,"
Robert A. Hoppe et al., USDA Economic Research Service,
Agriculture Information Bulletin #728.
"Women Farm Landlords in the United States," Denise M.
Rogers and Ann M. Vandeman, USDA Economic Research
Service, Agriculture Information Bulletin #681. November
Farm Aid News & Views is produced by Farm Aid. Editors
Harry Smith and Lynn Rosenbaum. We encourage the
reproduction of Farm Aid News & Views. Comments and
suggestions welcome. Farm Aid (617) 354-2922. Fax:
(617) 354-6992. Email: Farmaid1@aol.com.