Ag Perspectives: Women in Agriculture

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Photo courtesy of Erica Berman and the HIP Paris Blog.

Do you remember when you were a little kid, and everyone asked you what you wanted to do when you grew up? We always say a “teacher” or “astronaut”, or if you were really ambitious you said “president”! How many little kids say “farmer”? More specifically, how many little girls grow up wanting to be a farmer? I know when I was a little girl I never considered a job in agriculture. Now, as a young woman involved in a family cow/calf operation, I often wonder how I came to have such a deep affection for agriculture. When I reflect upon the many reasons why I love the farm life, I am reminded about how the farm keeps us alive rather than us keeping the farm going. Have you ever tasted beef that is truly fresh that you raised? What about those early Saturday mornings spent in the garden picking those bright red tomatoes and itchy okra? And, of course you can’t forget those warm summer nights resting out on the porch reflecting on all the hay you got done that day. Just the idea of providing for your family from your own land and living a quieter life is reason enough for me to stick close to the farm.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, only 14% of farms in the United States are operated by women. Many of these farms are small-scale, earning under $50,000 a year. The farms operated by women are often less likely to be in a favorable financial position than a farm operated by a white male. As a result these farms rely heavily on income off the farm. Perhaps the low number of women as principle operators is due to the low number of females having a degree in higher education. In 1970-1971, women earned 4.2% of the undergraduate degrees in agriculture and natural resources. In 2000-2001 the number increased to 45.1%. This is an improvement, but women are still in the minority in agricultural fields. So, not many women are entering the agriculture careers, but what about the young women that grew up on a farm and are leaving for another life? What are their reasons? Is it our media that encourages women to be more feminine and pursue a refined career? Are there equality issues still being bantered over like it were the 1970s? Whatever the reasons women feel pressured to leave the farm for a “better” career and life it is truly a sad thing. From my own experiences I have not been interviewed for jobs in the field of agriculture and my agricultural knowledge has been discounted because of my gender. I also find it funny when you tell people what field you are in and they are shocked. What is so crazy about being a woman and enjoying dirt and cows?

Just as there are many young women exiting the field of agriculture, there are plenty of notable women still going strong in the field. This article is dedicated to them- to the women that serve as directors, board members, managers, and producers. These women are keeping American agriculture in a forward direction. So, in order to honor National Women’s History Month and National Agriculture Day, thank you to all the women that are dedicated to producing fine agriculture products!

About The Author: Lyssa McKenry  is currently an Administrative Support Assistant for the UTK ALEC program and also teaches an undergraduate course in Agricultural Extension. Lyssa has a Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Education from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and is pursuing a Master’s degree in Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication. She and her husband, Aaron, have a cattle farm in East Tennessee.