The Future of Farming Is Changing for Women

Casey Hynes

Tammy Gray-Steele’s roots are in the rural Oklahoma farm where her family has raised cattle for six generations. Whether she’s working the 2,600-acre property in Sasakwa, or serving as executive director of the National Women in Agriculture Association in Oklahoma City, Gray-Steele is a farmer through and through.

She also has her hands full helping to run the 10-acre NWIAA urban farm on Oklahoma City’s east side, where local families can help themselves to free fresh fruits and vegetables. Then there’s the community garden program, where children learn to grow and harvest produce. And the after-school and summer programs. Gray-Steele also spends much of her time advocating for federal support and grant funding just to keep everything running.

Like a lot of female farmers, Gray-Steele is a hard-working leader trying to fill a need within her community. Also like many female farmers, she isn’t a stranger to being shut out of funding and other resources.

A different approach

Bridget Holcomb, executive director of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, says that female farmers tend to take a community-oriented approach that also makes it harder for them to secure funding. “We know that, since women are looking at farms that are outside of the box, they’re less likely than their male counterparts to get support,” she says.

“Women don’t ask, ‘Where can I best compete?’” she says. “They look around and ask, ‘What can I do to support my family and my community?’”

Since female farmers tend to focus on less traditional types of farming as they seek to fill voids in their own communities, they are often overlooked by conventional funding systems. “When you come to agriculture from that perspective,” Holcomb says, “you’re not likely to start growing exactly what all of your neighbors are growing. You’re going to start growing vegetables, or you’re going to start a raspberry farm or a goat cheese-making business—something that isn’t met in your community.”

Financing can be an even bigger struggle for women of color. “Women farmers, particularly black women farmers, are often not taken seriously,” says Michelle Louise Bicking, founder and executive director of Hidden Acres Farm in Tolland, Connecticut. “I spent many a packed workshop sitting with seats on both sides of me empty, as if I carried some sort of plague. If dared to speak at all, I’d see white farmers roll their eyes or chuckle out loud.”

“There’s also a sense of non-belonging,” she adds. “Black people are expected to stick to living and working in urban centers and leave [farming] up to white folks—with predominantly Brown labor.”

In terms of industry support, Bicking says, “there are no regional authorities that equitably represent me as both as both a woman of color and a farmer. … I’ve decided to build my own table instead of waiting for others to offer me a seat.”

For women who have been in the industry a long time, the challenges to accessing support are nothing new. Renee C. Randall, owner of Willow Ridge Organic Farm just outside of Wauzeka, Wisconsin, recalls that when she was first starting out in the 1970s, a lending agent told her outright, “Frankly, we don’t intend to give you any money,” when she sought financing to renovate an old farm. Instead, she learned to farm from local “old timers,” pulling funding and resources from wherever she could.

Seeds of progress

Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers some programs for women-owned businesses (though not specifically for female farmers and ranchers), as well as “socially disadvantaged” groups. That classification includes “beginning farmers, racial and ethnic minority farmers and women producers,” as well organic and urban farmers, according to the USDA’s site. Existing options include low-interest loans for women and minority farmers, and microloans for small and socially disadvantaged operations.

But the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition reported that lending to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, specifically women and farmers of color, has decreased over the past two years.

“We see a lot of women still having trouble getting loans and getting into government programs and even really being taken seriously,” Holcomb says.

Still, she adds, the USDA is aware it needs to do more to support female farmers. The department even asked her to speak on exactly this issue at a recent conference.

Gray-Steele also speaks optimistically about the current proposed Farm Bill, though she says NWIAA has been lobbying to ensure the legislation creates opportunities specifically for women of color and economically disadvantaged communities. “We want it tailored to make sure our work is not in vain,” she says. She believes that if NWIAA were able to get national recognition and increased funding, it could have an even greater impact on underserved communities.

USDA programs have provided some options, Randall acknowledges. Since realizing she qualifies for USDA funding under provisions for “socially disadvantaged” farmers, she’s somewhat encouraged by women’s prospects for securing financing.

“That status entitles me to certain advantages under USDA programs, as does the other category I discovered—‘limited resources’—which of course happens when you can’t be taken seriously.”

Randall says she’d like to see more outreach to educate female farmers about the resources that exist. In her experience, farmers must “ferret out” information about funding opportunities and other support.

Farming for their communities

Despite the barriers to support that female farmers face, women are persevering for the sake of their communities.

“A lot of women in our network are asking, ‘Who benefits from what I’m doing?’” Holcomb says. She sees many women who want to sell their products to schools, access unused farmland, or find ways to support veterans and underserved communities through agriculture. “It’s a market approach, but it’s also a really personal approach.”

For the NWIAA, watching the community grow and flourish has been a blessing. Gray-Steele sees urban farming as a possible antidote to crime and desperation. (Within the past decade, Oklahoma City has been named one of the worst cities in the country for gang homicide.) She believes that if young children in the area are exposed to positive alternatives and supportive structures, they can avoid the pitfalls of growing up in a poor, underserved area.

For example, the organization’s urban farming program, which hosts 15 to 20 students at a time, gives young people opportunities toward a more positive future. Three participants recently went to college to major in agricultural fields, and another joined the military. Gray-Steele hopes that NWIAA chapters across the country will use the Oklahoma City programs as models for urban farming initiatives.

Signs of change

When Randall began farming in Wisconsin in the 1970s, she says women were doing significant work on local farms but receiving little credit for their efforts. “I saw plenty of women actually farming in the background, milking cows and managing the farm while their husbands had off-farm jobs,” she says. “It was never an acknowledged fact. The image was always of the farmer, not the ‘farmess.’”

Jeanette Lombardo, president of American Agri-Women, who grew up on a farm outside Erie, Pennsylvania, says women’s roles on farms have been steadily changing in recent decades.

“Three generations ago, women were responsible for the home and children while men managed the farms,” she says. But their daughters took a more active role in the farm’s business and financial concerns. Then the next generation, including Lombardo herself, was involved in working with the crops and day-to-day operations. After college and a stint in banking, she returned to the agriculture field to serve as an agricultural lender and later as an entrepreneur and advocate.

Lombardo has seen more women taking active roles in farming operations, pursuing agricultural majors in college and stepping up their involvement in production. She’s also seeing farmers, both men and women, engage more across all spectrums of the industry.

“Every farmer has to be their own advocate for their own farm. They have to be involved at every level about regulations that are going to affect them,” she said.

When it comes to advocating for equitable treatment, women may find that there is strength in their growing numbers. More than half of agricultural school graduates are women, and with organizations such as NWIAA, WFAN, and American Agri-Women, the opportunities for support and action are increasing as well.

Holcomb speaks optimistically about growing awareness of the need for more equitable resources. But laws can change slowly, and female farmers aren’t waiting on legislators.

With or without state support, many women in agriculture are forging their own paths, creating the structures they need, and “building their own table” instead of waiting for external solutions. Holcomb said she often sees women turning to the community-supported agriculture model, in which customers can subscribe to regular deliveries of fresh produce. Others will farm a portion of another woman’s land until they’re ready to start their own independent farms. Still others secure contracts with restaurants and wholesalers before they begin growing to “bridge that capital divide,” Holcomb says.

However they do it, female farmers’ efforts are needed. “Women are the backbone of the rural communities throughout this country,” Lombardo says. “They are an integral part of the economic vitality of their hometowns in so many ways.”