One Million Strong . . . and Growing!

Editor’s note: This week’s WAgN blog shares observations from outgoing USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan on the status of women in agriculture.  “There is serious momentum behind women in agriculture,” Merrigan says.

Deputy_Secretary_MerriganIn the four years I’ve served as Deputy Secretary, I’ve talked with thousands of women in agriculture – from young women thinking about entering farming to older women who have been tilling the soil for decades.  Each of their stories is powerful on its own.  But taken together, they have been an inspiration to the entire country. And today, we know that there are nearly one million of these stories around the country – nearly one million women farming and ranching on America’s working lands.

A study released today by USDA’s Economic Research Service, Characteristics of Women Farm Operators and Their Farms found that the number of women-operated farms more than doubled between 1982 and 2007. When all women involved with farming are added up – including primary and secondary operators – they are nearly one million strong and account for 30% of U.S. farmers.

The study also found that the number of women-operated farms increased in all sales classes, suggesting that size does not matter when it comes to agricultural opportunity for women.ERS report

This puts real numbers to a trend that many of us have seen firsthand: there is serious momentum behind women in agriculture.  This is personally gratifying for me – supporting women in agriculture has long been one of my passions. And it is a sign of the growing importance of USDA efforts to reach women farmers and ranchers.

While at USDA, I’ve made this a priority. For instance, in the last four years, USDA’s Farm Service Agency has made significant modifications to its County committee structure to ensure fair representation of minority and women producers.

We are also highlighting the accomplishments of women in agriculture, even as we work to ensure that USDA programs serve them better. Through the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, we’ve seen how women are driving the development of local and regional food systems across the country.  Last fall, I penned an op-ed with another women leader in agriculture, New Hampshire Agricultural Commissioner Lorraine Stuart Merrill, about the contributions women are making in the Granite State’s economy through local food.

The ERS study also finds that women are leaders in livestock production.  Nearly half of our country’s women-operated farms—those for which a woman is primarily responsible for making the business decisions—specialize in livestock. During a White House Google+ Hangout about women in agriculture, I talked with Cory Carman, a fourth-generation rancher from eastern Oregon who left farming for another career only to follow her heart back to Carman Ranch to raise cattle.  Now she is the operator of a thriving direct-marketing beef business.

For me, one of the most exciting findings of the ERS report is that younger women are entering farming faster than older women are leaving. Women also have a higher land ownership rate than their male counterparts, with 85% of women owning all of the land they farm, compared to 66% of their male counterparts.

But women farmers and ranchers still have a ways to go. More women than men rely on off-farm income, suggesting that farming cannot support them full-time. Only 5% of women-operated farms have sales of $100,000 or more.

Womenshare 2013Tonight, I will be traveling to LaCrosse, WI to join WomenShare 2013, an event focused on women in the food system. This will be my last official travel as Deputy Secretary of USDA. As I prepare to leave my post as the highest ranking woman at the Department, know that I will continue to work on advancing women’s opportunities in agriculture. One million women is only the beginning.

Originally posted on the USDA Blog ( on April 29, 2013.


About Women's Agricultural Network

WAgN provides education and technical assistance geared to the needs of women farmers.
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