New book documents the rise and impact of women in agriculture

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Researchers from Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences and Ohio University have co-authored a new book that examines a recent cultural shift in agriculture, marked by an unprecedented number of women who have entered into farming.

In "The Rise of Women Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture," the authors explore the societal changes that have empowered women to claim the farmer identity, describe barriers that are broadly encountered by women farmers, and posit that their innovative responses to these barriers are helping to redefine agriculture.

"This book came out of 10 years of doing research and working closely with women farmers in Pennsylvania and in the Northeast," said the book's lead author, Carolyn Sachs, professor of rural sociology and women's studies, Penn State. "We were so impressed with the kind of work women were doing on farms — oftentimes with minimal resources, little capital, maybe little land — but doing creative things to try to transform the agricultural system. We felt like we needed to get their stories out there."

Through interviews and focus groups, Sachs and her co-authors collected hundreds of anecdotes, which are woven throughout the book (using pseudonyms) to lend context to the book's themes, beginning with a discussion of barriers these women farmers have experienced. For example, several describe encountering resistance to the very idea that they are farmers, as well as more tangible difficulties accessing land, labor and financing.

Despite such challenges, the number of women entering farming has risen substantially since the turn of this century; as of 2012, 30 percent of all farm operators and 14 percent of all principal farm operators in the U.S. are women. That women farmers are creatively finding ways to work past the barriers they encounter is clear and is at the center of the authors' feminist agrifood systems theory, or FAST, which Sachs said was developed to provide a framework for understanding the different ways that women farm, what kind of resistance they experience and how they might be changing the food system.

"What we're arguing in this book is because of women's particular place in agriculture — they don't often step into mainstream agriculture, inheriting a thousand-acre farm or a 500-cow dairy from their fathers or their families — they oftentimes have this space to be more creative," said Sachs.

For instance, some of the women they interviewed access land by farming on public land or in cities where land is more accessible. Others approach acquiring labor and financing with similar ingenuity. All of them quite intentionally incorporate their values — particularly those related to producing healthy food, engaging in satisfying work and farming in harmony with their land and their communities — into their operations, said Sachs.

The book also documents the rise of women-centered farming organizations such as the Pennsylvania Women's Agricultural Network (PA-WAgN), which Sachs helped to establish. Networks like these fill a void left by traditional farmer-education models that deliver content based on the type of farm enterprise, said co-author Mary Barbercheck, professor of entomology, Penn State.

"Women have some of the same issues as any farmer but also have their own special sets of challenges and opportunities, which don't always fit into neat disciplinary categories," she said. "In PA-WAgN, what we've tried to do is to listen to our stakeholders, which are women farmers of all kinds, and deliver what they say they want."

Barbercheck hopes that their book helps people to "broaden their definition of what a farmer is and who can be a farmer," she said. "Most of the farmers we worked with are self-defined as sustainable — mostly smaller, serving local markets. Our book gives people the opportunity to hear from those farmers about what they do and how they've managed to be successful as they've defined success in their own way."

Other co-authors include Kathryn Brasier, associate professor of rural sociology, and Nancy Ellen Kiernan, professor emerita, both of Penn State, and Anna Rachel Terman, assistant professor of sociology, of Ohio University. The book is published by the University of Iowa Press.

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Last Updated July 28, 2017