UNIONTOWN, Ohio – When David Kohl started teaching at Virginia Tech in the late ’70s, he talked about the economics of agriculture to lecture halls full of young men. Back then, just 4 percent of Kohl’s students were women.
But things have changed. Not just in agriculture, but in Kohl’s classes: The number of females sitting in his room last year ballooned to 63 percent.
The demographics of agriculture is obviously changing, Kohl told a group of producers last week at the Northeast Ohio Dairy Management Conference.
And the change isn’t just in the classroom. It’s on the farm, too.
According to newly released U.S. census information, more than a quarter of all farm operations in the country are now run by women. And more women than ever are listed as the primary farm operator.
Caution. Be careful of the statistics, though, cautioned Peggy Clark, president of Ohio Agri-Women.
More women are being added legally as partners because of incentives in the farm bill, she said. If a husband and wife are listed as owners, they will both be entitled to subsidies, rather than just one of them, she said.
These women were likely working on the farm before, but are now being counted, Clark said.
Stepping up. But women being added as farm partners isn’t the only reason for the jump, Clark said.
It’s hard to find hired help willing to work the hours of a farmer for a farmer’s pay, so farm wives are stepping into the role, said Clark, who operates a 5,500-acre grain farm with her husband and son in Warren County, Ohio.
Although it’s not a new trend, Clark said widows also account for many female farm owners.
Their husbands die and they take over the family farm, she said, noting half of Ohio Agri-Women members are widows.
Other ag jobs. The census numbers don’t even represent all the women involved in ag-related careers, Clark said. Increasingly, females are finding jobs at seed and chemical companies, she said.
Less than 10 percent of the women in the University of Wisconsin’s Association of Women in Agriculture go home to farm, said member Elizabeth Walker.
Most work in sales, public relations, advertising or communications for ag-related companies, she said.
The most popular majors women in the group choose are dairy science, animal science and agricultural journalism, Walker said.
Clark credits the produce and herb sectors as drawing female farmers.
Two of the four farm markets near Clark’s home are run by women, she said, and she gets the most questions regarding these types of operations.
The majority of farm operators are between the ages of 45-54, according to national census data.
Later on. As women age, they want to return to their roots, said Kathy Rhoads, another Ohio Agri-Women member and farmer from Circleville, Ohio.
These women had a career and raised a family and now want a change. Farming is their answer, she said.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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