The number of female farm and farmland owners has risen in recent years, with the Women Food & Agriculture Network (WFAN) estimating that half of all farmland in the US is now owned or co-owned by women. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures also state that 31% of American farmers are women.

WFAN works to improve the representation of these women in the food industries and has been in operation since 1994. Despite women making up a huge proportion of the farming workforce, there are still said to be rifts between male and female workers, especially where agricultural policy is being decided.

Upper-tier underrepresentation

WFAN executive director Bridget Holcomb said: “We know that when women put themselves forward for leadership positions, they get the job at equal rates as men do.

"The problem is simply that women are not putting themselves forward.

“Men tend to look for leadership positions or elective offices to run for, while women tend to wait to be asked. Men tend to think ‘maybe I don't know everything I need to know for this position but I'll learn it as I go’; while women think that they need to learn so much more before they’re ready for the job.

"We do a lot of training that empowers women, but one of the most important things that we do is ask women to run for office; we tell them that 'you aren't going to feel ready. Don't let that stop you.'”

The problem may be symptomatic of wider changes of perception that are needed in the agricultural sector. Men being more willing to put themselves forward for a position is not exclusive to agriculture, but the perception in the media of what makes a farmer or agricultural worker may contribute to women feeling as though they are not made of the right stuff.

Holcomb adds: “One of the biggest problems that we face is that every time that there is a general news story about agriculture in the US, the person who is interviewed is a white man wearing a plaid shirt, standing in a field of commodity crops. Our ultimate goal is that no story about agriculture is complete until women's voices are included."

Farmer, or farmer’s wife?

Related to the need for a perception change is the ‘farmer’s wife’ debate. There are growing calls from many working in agriculture to not label women who work alongside their partner on a farm as a farmer’s wife, with claims that the term is gendered, removing individuality from the woman in question. In many cases equal work is done by both the husband and the wife, which has led to appeals to simply call the woman a farmer in their own right.

As with most debates though, the matter isn’t straightforward. Many women do not take issue or prefer the term, and many are married to farmers but have careers in their own right, so are more than happy at being referred to as farmer’s wife, or farm wife.

Holcomb recognises the debate, but indicates that it detracts from the main issues. She says: “We support women with whatever they want to call themselves. It’s interesting to see women who are absolutely farmers be more comfortable with the term farmers wife. We even see women who are referring to themselves as gardeners instead of farmers.

"Our goal is not to make women change what they call themselves, but rather for them to be comfortable calling themselves whatever they want.”

Though there is also the point to be made that the amount of women calling themselves farmers indicates that more are comfortable in their role, feeling less pressured to conform to what can be perceived to be a male-centric industry.

Holcomb says: “We see that the change is much more pronounced in younger farmers. We see women who are straight out of college who are going into farming and they have no qualms about calling themselves farmers because in their eyes that's exactly what they're doing.”

Future female farmers

The USDA’s 31% figure may be set to rise in the future, as in recent years there has been a great deal of interest among the younger population. The US looks to mimic the UK’s rise in female agricultural interest, where the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) reported that according to university and college figures, 25% more women than men enrolled in agriculture-related courses in 2016, with the Royal Agricultural University seeing a 44% increase in female students.

Holcomb says: “We've seen a base increase in younger women and it’s really exciting.

“We get to see all these women who want to get into agriculture and all of the women who have paved the way for them sharing everything that they know. The mentors that we bring in for our beginning farming training are so excited to see this next generation of farmers that they absolutely love working with.

"They'll share all of their knowledge, even though theoretically they are sharing their knowledge with potential future competitors. It really is a network of support.”

However, WFAN still sees a perception problem, even among young women who know they want to enter farm work, as many end up convincing themselves out of it.

Holcomb adds: “What they tend to do is go into some study in college that is within agriculture but is not farming itself. Lots of women going into research or genomics or plant breeding, and often those women get out of college and say 'I still just want to farm.'”

The biggest problem facing women in agriculture is no longer restrictive regulations or even employment opportunities. There are still problems in these areas that need to be addressed, but the very concept of what makes a farmer is what needs to be changed.

Holcomb says: “Over the last 20 years we've seen a lot of improvements in acceptance for women, but all of that has been hard earned.

"We've got a long way to go until no one blinks at a woman being a farmer, and until women are treated well. Until women make up half the table anywhere that agricultural decisions are being made we're still going to be fighting this.”