Women take more active production role on farm

Oct 29, 2011
by DTN

Katie Sanger, 25, came back to the farm three years ago full time to help take over from her father, Joe Sanger, and recently bought her first piece of land.

The land sits between two fields already owned by her family’s 6,400-acre operation, which they run with cousins in western Kentucky and Tennessee. Sanger, 25, returned to the farm to help take over her father’s role so he can retire.

She’s not alone. Women are taking the helm of farms in greater numbers than ever before, according to Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan data and the 2007 US- DA Ag Census.

“Farming’s not like it used to be where you needed a strong back and a weak mind,” said Katie’s father, Joe. “Now, it’s better to have a strong mind and weak back.” As technology replaces the “man” needed for manual labor and as farming is increasingly seen as a career that’s compatible with women’s traditional responsibilities such as child rearing, women’s involvement on the farm is growing.

The USDA Ag Census from 2007 shows that 14 percent of U.S. farms have female primary operators and when you include joint operators, 30 percent of the country’s farms have women in the driver’s seat. That’s more than 1 million women and a 19 percent increase from 2002’s census.

The next Ag Census, expected to start surveying in January 2013, could show another jump if it follows FSA’s lending trends. In fiscal year 2011, FSA made 3,553 loans to women, a 31 percent jump from 2006’s figures, said Chris Beyerhelm, FSA deputy administrator of loan programs.

That’s 86 percent more loans than were issued to women in 2001. Much of the gain can be attributed to more aggressive outreach to women and other farmers who meet USDA’s socially disadvan taged criteria. As the agency moves forward from its history of discrimination, its lending to socially disadvantaged farmers increased 11 percent while overall loans decrease 9 percent.

White City, KS, rancher Debbie Lyons-Blythe, a mother of five, points out that women have been involved on the farm since the pioneer days. She remembers the stories of her grandmother baling hay, but only remembers seeing her in the house. As gender roles evolved, so did women’s role on the farm.

“Traditionally, it’s always been if you’re married, you run it as a husband-and-wife joint operation,” Beyerhelm said. “I think more operations now are setting themselves up to be corporations run by one or the other, the husband or wife, and in more cases now, the wife. So I think some of it is just a change in the way people are doing business, not just in agriculture, but across America.”

The Ag Census shows that more women are becoming involved in commodity agriculture, but they’re still more likely to run hay and horse farms, grow fruits and vegetables, or raise small livestock and laying hens. More women run farms in the northeast, likely because the dairies and smaller livestock farms are more common there than in the heart of the Corn Belt. On a worldwide scale, women are seen as crucial to solving global hunger.

In this series, DTN will look at the roles women play on conventional farms, why women gravitate to smallscale diversified farms, and how elderly women who inherited their husband’s or father’s ground are making decisions.

Katie Sanger’s neighbor called the family on a Friday to ask them if they’d like to put in a silent bid for the 172 acres that had been in soybeans for 20 years. Joe and Katie debated buying the land together, but decided Katie should make the bid— in the range of $4,300 per acre for river bottom ground—on her own.

Sanger didn’t need FSA to help her buy her farmland. Her parents made her a lowinterest loan that helped to persuade the community banker to back her purchase.

“I guess I’m just lucky I had the chance” to come back to the farm, she told DTN in

April. “Dad never pushed it.” In fact, she had plenty of opportunities to find a path outside of farming. She spent high school at a boarding school in Chattanooga, TN, and went to a liberal arts college before transferring to Murray State University to get her ag business degree. She loved her art history classes, and after working as a camp counselor one summer and on an organic diversified farm another, decided she wanted to move back to Fulton County.

She’s been farming full time for three years and found a coach in her father. Katie is responsible for the crop insurance and government paperwork and will take on more of her dad’s responsibilities on the marketing side as he gets closer to retiring. When she felt nervous about talking to a seed dealer, she said her dad told her to “go in, take it seriously, show them that you know what you’re talking about, and they’ll respect you.”

It worked. She can run all of the equipment on the farm, and got a few odd looks from neighbors when driving the semitrailer to the bin site. But otherwise, “starting out, just the stereotype was the hardest thing. Women don’t usually farm.”

Debbie Lyons-Blythe moved to her husband’s hometown 40 miles south of Manhattan right after they got married. While he worked at the bank, she worked as a county 4-H agent and then owned the newspaper for three years. She always had a few cattle, but when she got pregnant with twins—after having three children in four years—she sold the newspaper to her assistant and started to ranch full time. This let her stay home to raise her children. Her oldest daughter is now 20 and the twins are 16.

Lyons-Blythe runs 200 certified Angus cows, 350 heifers and sells certified Angus bulls. She loves that she can set her own schedule, which has helped her raise the children and be involved in their lives off the ranch. “I know the days that I’ve got a ballgame in the evening and I need the chores finished in enough time so the minute my husband gets home, we’re ready to roll,” she said. “I love it.”

Her children have always been involved on the farm and help mow hay, build fences and vaccinate calves. But for the most part, Lyons- Blythe does most of the work. They’ve built special facilities to make it easier for her to breed the cattle without help. “Anybody can get the work accomplished. It might just have to be a little bit differently how you do it, but a girl can do just as much work as a guy,” she said.

She said she learned from her mother’s example as a National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) president and rancher, Jan Lyons, that the cattle don’t care about your gender; they’re just hungry.

Her mother’s example as NCBA’s president in 2004- 05, “just really showed me that it didn’t matter that I was a woman. I’m not first a woman. I’m first a rancher. And, oh, by the way, I’m also a woman.”

Her mother encouraged her to join organizations and take on leadership roles when appropriate; and now Lyons-Blythe is serving as NCBA chair of the Property Rights and Environmental Management Committee. She’s trying to encourage leadership in her children, and as they’re becoming more involved, she’s noticed a perplexing trend.

Her oldest daughter, a 20-year-old student at Kansas State University, was elected to the National Junior Angus board of directors. One candidate of the 12 running for the board was a male and he wasn’t elected. More than half of the students in Kansas State’s ag school are women, and it’s raised some hairy thoughts about making sure her three boys stay motivated.

“I don’t have a problem with women stepping up, but I don’t want the men to step back because of strong women,” she said. “I want my boys to feel like they compete on a producer level, on a leadership level, and it doesn’t matter your gender. I don’t want them to feel like a woman will beat them out, but yet, I want them to look at women and see them as strong and capable and partners. That’s been a real question for my husband and I, because we really strongly believe there’s not as many gender roles as there are jobs that need done.” — Katie Micik, DTN