Women are on the rise in agriculture – and they could play a big part in the future of Kentucky’s rural economy.
Originally published October 2006 in The Lane Report, a Kentucky business magazine.
By Andy Olsen
When their mother died in 2002, Belinda Neff and Carla McDowell poured their tears into the tomatoes.
A farm wife, she had gardened and canned as long as the sisters could remember, so mourning just came naturally in the kitchen. They cut onions and boiled tomatoes – mountains of them – and gave cans of homemade salsa out to just about everyone they knew. They cried and chopped and cooked.
Folks told the Maysville sisters their salsa was too good to be free, and Neff and McDowell signed up for a class on home-based processing. With some help from the local chamber of commerce and Morehead State University’s Small Business Development Center, the women hashed out a business plan. Before long they were filling salsa orders from McDowell’s little kitchen, dicing thousands of jars worth of vegetables with a plastic gadget that only by some ￼￼miracle survived so much produce.
In 2003, the sisters became the first certified home-based processors in Kentucky. By the next year, they had received a grant and built a commercial kitchen onto the side of the house. Now they ship 10,000 jars of salsa a year to festivals and grocery stores across Kentucky and Ohio.
Although Neff works as an administrator of a nearby rehab facility and McDowell as a first-grade teacher, they often come home, don their hairnets and jar salsa into the night. They rarely invite men to help. “Carla and I actually prefer to be in the kitchen with all women,” Neff said. “We have a lot of friends who just come out for the evening and say, ‘Hey, I’m coming out to help.’”
By the standards of big business, McDowell and Neff run a humble enterprise – they still can’t figure out how to crack the shelves at Kroger. But at a time when the number of farmers across the country is shrinking, they are part of a rare growth trend in agriculture. Women are taking control of farms and farm ventures more than ever and are gaining a foothold as innovators in America’s agricultural economy.
Nationwide, the number of women operating farms grew by more than 13 percent to 237,819 between 1997 and 2002, according to the agricultural census. While men are still the majority on American farms, the number of male principal farm operators dropped by nearly 6 percent during the same period to 1.89 million.
Reasons for the growth vary. Women are inheriting farms from their parents, or retiring from established careers and buying farms in pursuit of a rural life more in touch with the land. As farms grow in size, farm wives are assuming more day-to-day tasks and outliving their husbands, taking over the entire operation.
In Kentucky, one in 10 farms is run by a woman, either by herself or with a partner. The state ranks sixth in terms of the number of female farmers, just behind Oklahoma and Tennessee. And while the number of women farming in Kentucky shrank slightly between 1997 and 2002 – a period of widespread decline in tobacco farming – the number of farms run by women grew nearly 7 percent between 1992 and 2002, to more than 8,200.
“A wife or daughter will inherit a farm through divorce. And some women have gone out and bought farms on their own,” said Terry Gilbert, president of Kentucky Women in Agriculture and chair of the American Farm Bureau’s Women’s Committee. “It’s a lot of ways that they’re getting them, but that number is growing.”
According to federal statistics, women are buying and inheriting small farms at a much faster rate than men. Some agricultural experts speculate that a majority of U.S. farmland will be owned by women in the next 20 years.
Many of the roles women are stepping into are non-traditional, such as micro enterprises and organic production. Most farms owned by women are smaller than 100 acres. Surveys have found women prefer to sell directly to consumers and are more likely to branch out into alternative forms of agriculture.
In the post-tobacco age, economists say the future of rural economies like Kentucky’s will depend on alternative operations as the unforgiving whims of global markets squeeze out traditional small farmers. To Gilbert, it all looks like a cry for help that women are well positioned to answer.
“Women have been a little quicker to see that need to change,” she said. “There are going to be some farmers in the state that are struggling to know what to do. And I think it’s an opportunity for women to say, ‘This might work. Let’s try it’ – whether it’s growing food for farmers markets or whatever.”
The sisters’ fledgling salsa operation is a case in point. Officially, it doesn’t count as a farm. But for McDowell and her husband, David, the revenue has replaced some of the dwindling income from tobacco farming.
Growing appeal for women
Among farmers who live there, it’s no secret that the Carraways have the prettiest combine crew in Calloway County. When the corn or soybeans have to be harvested, Freda Carraway and her daughter-in-law, Joanna, are driving the giant machines well after dark.
And when things really get going, 73-year-old Euva Carraway, Freda’s mother- in-law, has been known to take a big rig or two through town to the granary. None of them can think of anyone around with as many women in the field.
Freda left her job at a nearby school to help her husband manage the Murray farm as it grew in size. They run the farm jointly with their son, Craig – father of the family’s first grandson and husband of Joanna, a farm girl who went to college vowing she wouldn’t go back to field work, but now can’t get enough of it.
Everyone who knows here swears up and down that Joanna, 27, can take on any man when it comes to handling a combine. She works at an office in Murray, mainly for the benefits, but is holding out for the day she can be beside her husband on the farm.
“It’s always been my dream to have a farm and run it with my husband,” Joanna said. “It’s hard for me when I go to work, because I’m like, ‘You get to do what you want to do, and I have to go to a desk.’”
Joanna is a rarity among women farmers. Statistics show most are older than 50. But she’s not alone in her desire to abandon the office world and get back to the land. More young women are considering agriculture-related careers than ever before.
In Kentucky high schools, females make up roughly 40 percent of ag education students, according to Curt Lucas, state FFA advisor and an ag education consultant with the Department of Education. In contrast, females were not even allowed in FFA before 1969, and they were all but absent in ag education and most university ag programs.
Today, more than half of FFA leadership roles are filled by women, and women have actually dominated some FFA-sponsored competitions in recent years, particularly in public speaking. In higher education, women make up a growing segment of agriculture degree recipients and a majority of students in university animal science programs.
“We no longer have a gender issue in ag education in Kentucky, and that was not the case 20 or 25 years ago,” Lucas said. “The females are seeing more and more role models now.”
Some say the woman’s ascent in agriculture could be a boost in the realm of farm policy. An American Farm Bureau study found that farm women are more persuasive lobbyists than men.
“What they found out was that farm wives are even more credible than their husbands,” said Linda Johnson, director of policy implementation programs at the American Farm Bureau. “When they sit down with a congressman, they are more empathic. They can deliver a message about how this is going to affect the family farm from a family point of view.”
Carolyn Sorrell, 57, is the type of woman Johnson is talking about. Sorrell took over her family’s sprawling cattle operation near Hopkinsville – one of the state’s largest – after her husband died during a heart procedure in 1998. In a decent year she sells around 60,000 cattle nearly all by herself.
Sorrell runs the farm with her daughters, Laurie and Lee Ann, from an open office with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the stockyard. She has entertained some of Kentucky’s biggest names, including both of the state’s senators, Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer and Secretary of State Trey Grayson.
Before her husband died, Sorrell played the typical farm wife, shuffling piles of papers and working the phone with customers. Selling and cutting deals was his realm. But she didn’t balk when suddenly faced with running the whole operation.
“I didn’t know anything else,” she said. “I’ve been in cattle all my life, and I had kids to put through college. I didn’t want anybody to say I couldn’t do it.”
When it comes to networking and social connections, many women say society and the farming lifestyle don’t leave them many opportunities. Especially for those who go it alone, running a farm or agricultural business can be lonely and plain hard work.
Organizations like Kentucky Women in Agriculture help. Started by a handful of women seven years ago, the group now hosts an annual conference and has about 170 members. At the conference, women attend seminars on practical topics like launching a Web site, applying for loans and building a business plan.
It provides a different atmosphere from that of typical farming conferences, said Kim Henken, the group’s reporter and a University of Kentucky ag extension associate. Women “enjoy finding out they’re not the only ones doing it,” she said
Beth Tillery married into life on a small farm in McKee in Jackson County. She raises everything from flowers to fresh eggs, and trucks it to the farmers market in Lexington twice a week.
To her, the reason for women’s newfound prominence in farming is simple: “The women are better at it than the men,” she said. Her husband, Doug, grew up on a dairy farm and had more tolerance for agriculture’s ups and downs. Men who have been farming all their lives “just sit down and take it,” Tillery said. “But women aren’t like that. They’re like, ‘That’s not right. We’ve got to find a way to do better.’”
Tillery loves to be outside and doesn’t have much fondness for the kitchen. Still, she jokingly calls herself a “poor farmer” and can get discouraged – there’s just not enough time or money to build her dream farm.
At Tillery’s stand at the Lexington Farmers Market, “people say, ‘Wouldn’t that be nice to grow flowers for a living? You must have the most beautiful place,’” she said. But, she added, “sometimes you have to remind yourself they’re pretty.”