Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Women in agriculture not new

With Mother’s Day coming up, we decided it would be appropriate to post an opinion piece by one of our Idaho reporters.

Pat McCoy, in Boise, had noted that the directors of agriculture for Idaho, Oregon and Washington are all women. It’s an impressive accomplishment.

However, McCoy wanted to put into context the role that women have played in agriculture throughout history, even before these Western states recognized the contributions that women could make to agriculture policy.

We’re going to publish this article by McCoy on May 11, but it would be great to hear from our blog audience what they think about women in agriculture and their role in farm families, rural communities and agriculture in general.

What role do you see women having in your community? Do you — or women you know — work on a farm or at your business? How important is it to have the women involved and what do they bring to the business and family farm or ranch? What role are you seeing women do in organizations, and agricultural meetings? Do you see more women at these meetings? Why or why not?

Any other points you want to make?

At the end of it all, let’s also remember to give thanks for the contributions women make to agriculture. On Mother’s Day, it seems even more appropriate because so many of these working women on the land or in the boardroom are also mothers, an amazing feat to juggle with their other responsibilities.

We look forward to your comments.


Women in agriculture not new

Capital Press Staff Writer

When urban folks talk of farmers and ranchers they generally mean men. The crowds at the average producer association convention are predominantly male.

In truth, women have been deeply involved in agriculture for centuries. Modern technology hasn’t changed that.

What may be changing is that they’re taking more and more of a leadership role. The fact that the directors of the Idaho, Oregon and Washington state departments of agriculture are all women is but one case in point. Women are taking seats on commodity commissions, or serving as executive directors. Particularly in the world of small acreage operations serving specialty markets, women are highly visible, and may even be in the majority.

They’re networking, too, with many Women in Agriculture state organizations having websites specifically created for women involved in farming or ranching.

The USDA Rural Business Cooperative Service is getting in on the act, with a website at It offers still more resources for women in agriculture.

Women also serve important roles in influencing policy. For example, on June 10-13, American Agri-Women is having its annual legislative fly-in to Washington, D.C. to talk to policy makers and members of Congress.

“Among the priority issues for AAW are further development of renewable fuels; Endangered Species Act reform; and guest worker program reform. Legislative priorities include passage of legislation to clarify that manure is not a hazardous waste under the Superfund laws and opposition to legislation banning horse slaughter,” said the press release about the goals of the Washington event.

Sound familiar? A lot of the priority issues mirror what is important to a lot of other farm organizations.

They help to reinforce the message of the importance of agriculture to the country, and what is important to those in agriculture, echoing some of the priorities some of these women have emphasized for years.

Perhaps what’s really changed from the past is that women are no longer banned from owning property after they’re married. While laws sometimes allowed widows to own the property left by a deceased husband, the right to actually own property is a relatively modern, and much-needed, innovation.

So how were women involved in the past? They worked right along with the men in the field, even in Biblical times. The Book of Ruth in the Old Testament speaks of maidens working in the fields, and of Ruth, a widow, gleaning behind them in order to feed herself and her mother- in-law Naomi, also a widow.

In Medieval and even Renaissance Europe, women worked right along side the men, often doing some of the most dangerous farm work. The reason was harsh, but realistic. If a wife was injured or died, most men could hire extra help or remarry without too much difficulty. If a husband was disabled or died, a woman with several small children would often find it difficult to find honest help or another husband, unless she was wealthy or of political prominence.

Those property laws may also have been a factor. If the peasant owned land, it usually went to a son, and often an uncle or another male relative became the guardian. If the land was rented, or the peasant a serf on the land, the widow and any small children might be evicted in favor of a male able to do the work. Life on the road as a beggar and eventual starvation was a very real threat.

Hand labor was hard, slow work. Women worked along side their men to get it all done, stopping only long enough to have more children, providing yet more hands to help on the farm — and more mouths to feed so everybody had to work that much harder to do the job.

Coming forward to relatively modern times, a book by Cokie Roberts, “Founding Mothers,” is a real eye opener. During the American Colonial and Revolutionary War periods, the men were off serving in the Continental Congress, or fighting. Not all were wealthy slave owners. Their women kept the farms going, sometimes under terrific duress. If they were caught by British or Hessian soldiers, they could expect no mercy. Roberts tells of several who fled with their children into the woods for safety, or guarded hidden caches of documents that would have hung their men, possibly even themselves, leaving their children orphaned.

This type of danger holds true for every war. The men went off to fight. Rosie the Riveter is a well-remembered figure from World War II. She was out running the farms and ranches as well as manning the assembly lines in factories.

Despite the outcries over “factory” or corporate farms, big processors generally find trying to grow their own raw products too costly. Today’s farms and ranches are almost all family owned and operated. Women often handle much of the book work and work fulltime off farm to help pay the bills. When harvest time rolls around, they’re out in the fields driving the trucks that deliver sugarbeets to the dump, or other commodities to the warehouses and silos. It isn’t that unusual to find one on a tractor, either.

Modern societal problems aren’t limited to cities. Divorce, debilitating injuries and death often leave women the sole operator of a farm or ranch. They’re found in virtually every rural community.

It’s definitely time to bury that stereotype. Women are definitely part of agriculture. They always were. Chances are, that won’t change in the future.

Pat McCoy is based in Boise. Her e-mail address is

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threecollie said...

AS you know, Elaine, I am at least one woman in farming, partners with my husband and kids at our dairy. One of our daughters and our son both want to return to farming. I also serve on our county Farm Bureau Board of Directors with several men and five other women. They are all very active in farming and ag politics

Elaine Shein said...

Thanks for your note. How does this compare with meetings you may have attended a decade or more ago? More or fewer women in attendance or involved on boards in your area?

How do you get more women to be involved?

Thanks for your insight.


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