The below post is a first draft of my presentation that I will give at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. I would love your feedback!
Women in U.S. Agriculture
The role women play in U.S. Agriculture is as diverse as the industry itself. We are educators, entrepreneurs, executives, board members, and stewards of the land. As diverse as we are, we are united by our unique ability to nurture, as well as our common desire to preserve our agricultural heritage, protect the environment, educate consumers, and ensure a safe and prosperous food supply.
The global food system has many consumers demanding to know more about the origin of their food, and women are rising to the occasion to meet those demands. The 2007 USDA Agricultural census reported that 14 percent of our nation’s 2.2 million farms are owned by women and more than 30 percent of U.S. farm operators are women. The total number of women operators increased 19 percent and the total number of farms owned by women increased by 5 percent from the 2002 census. Those numbers are expected to double in the 2012 agricultural census.
Here in America we have witnessed unprecedented growth in local food and marketing opportunities. The number of farmers’ markets rose to 5,274 in 2009, up from 2,756 in 1998 and 1,755 in 1994 (USDA). In 2005, there were 1,144 community-supported agriculture organizations (CSAs) in operation, up from 400 in 2001 and 2 in 1986. The greatest success stories of farmers markets and CSAs originates here in NYC with the GreenMarkets. What started 30 years ago with 12 has grown into 54 markets, 230 farm families and 30,000 acres of farmland protected from development.
The GreenMarket Farmers Markets have helped change regional agriculture and the regional food system; it has revitalized rural communities and urban spaces, improved consumer health, provided fresh and nutritious food to those most in need through EBT/Food Stamps and Youthmarket programs, supported immigrant farmers, encouraged crop diversity, educated school children and city residents about the importance of regional agriculture, provided a wholesale opportunity for medium sized farms, inspired new culinary trends, and influenced chefs and eaters in one of the culinary capitals in the world (growncy.org).
American farm women are also stepping forward in many leadership capacities, in administration, public affairs, public relations and education, just to name a few areas. Our current NY Agri-women President and founder Cari Rincker is a farm owner, NYC Food and Agriculture attorney, as well as a leadership board member for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Young Producers’ Council. Member Judi Whittaker, a farm owner from Whitney Point, NY spends countless hours advocating for food and agriculture both at the local and national levels through her work with the American Farm Bureau. Advances made in all fields by the feminist movement have helped women make a difference in agriculture.
We are united by our passion to educate the consumer. We bring consumers together at our farms, we promote healthy eating and exercise to children, and we adopt classrooms through our Ag in the Classroom project. NY Agri-woman and farm owner Chris Fesko has rolled all these activities into one, through the creation of her On the Farm Discovery Center. Annually, she hosts thousands of visitors to her farm to learn about food and agriculture while also learning math science and language arts. This is in addition to the numerous award winning on farm educational videos that she produces and markets around the world. Chris also serves on her town’s board and is a director for Farm Credit East, the largest agricultural lender in the Northeastern part of the United States.
American agricultural women are blessed with a strong rural infrastructure supporting their personal and professional development. Our Higher Education system and the Farm Credit Banking System are two notable areas. Here in New York State we are blessed with several colleges of agriculture and technology including my place of employment Morrisville State College. We offer numerous applied agriculture degree to young men and women planning to return to their home farm, start their own farms and or enter careers in the agriculture industry. Most recently, agricultural business development student Jenn Masters worked with Nelson Farms, the college’s small scale food processing facility, to create Country Crunch using a recipe developed by her grandmother. Jenn will graduate in May with both a degree and an agricultural business in hand.
While access to credit is often a limiting factor for women who are interested in agriculture, here in America we have the Farm Credit System, a farmer owned agricultural cooperative. Farm Credit was established by Congress 1916 to provide a reliable source of credit for the nation’s farmers and ranchers. Today, the system provides more than one-third of the credit needed by those who live and work in rural America. New York Agri-Women member Jan Bitter is a Vice President for Farm Credit East, which serves farmers in New York, New Jersey and parts of New England. Jan notes that in her almost 30 years at Farm Credit the role of women on the farm and in agribusiness has changed dramatically. In the early 1980’s, most of the women who worked on farms were unpaid family laborers. Women in agribusiness roles knew that there were some farms that they couldn’t visit on their own, because the owner refused to do business with a woman.
Today there is a growing number of women owning and managing farms. Once a woman has a track record of operating a profitable farm business, access to credit is not an issue. Farm Credit recently initiated FarmStart, a program to support talented, hardworking individuals entering agriculture. FarmStart assists beginning farmers and new cooperatives through their start-up years by providing working capital investments of up to $50,000 to get their business off the ground. Farm Credit also offers incentives to young, beginning and small farmers to help them manage their farm operations.
Our combined efforts have helped US agriculture become the most developed in the world. Through our production efforts we provide food and fiber for the growing domestic and international markets. We supply the feedstock for an expanding bioenergy sector, and provide ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration to a nation increasingly concerned with the environment (Amberwaves, 2011). In part, it is because of US agriculture that the food needs of the world’s growing population will be met. We are doing so with a renewed interest in social responsibility, food safety, and environmental stewardship.
Women in agribusiness are now such a familiar sight on farms that they can’t be turned away at the farm gate. However, large scale corporate agricultural business in the US is still hugely dominated by a white male workforce that is traditionally in charge of decision-making and operation. We have great hopes that NY Agri-women members like Molly Zorn, a National Account Manager for Genex Cooperative and Rebecca Snyder, our incoming New York Agri-Women President and Animal Nutritionist for the global powerhouse Cargill, will be successful at making positive strides to break through the glass ceiling, paving the way for future generations of women to make decisions about agriculture and the global food system.
Although our success as entrepreneurs in the local food system is noteworthy, we lack the infrastructure related to the distribution of local and regional food. Currently we are not able to move local food into mainstream markets in a cost-effective manner. Finally, because most small farmers must combine their products with other farmers’ products to make processing and shipping more economical, challenges are posed for product quality, consistency, and traceability. Without traceability in place, wholesale buyers must assume higher levels of risk and liability in cases of foodborne illness.
Food safety issues will continue to be at the forefront of any local food model. It is my hopes that we can learn from one another to collectively develop a safe, secure and economically viable local food model that can be applied to all regions of the world. As I tell my students, it has been proven time and time again that a healthy rural economy equates to a healthy national economy, creating a win-win situation for all women in all countries.