Women’s roles on farms are changing


November 18th, 2014

Fort Morgan, CO – Sondra Pierce’s sugar beet harvest on a small plot of land in rural Boulder County, Colorado is on pause. And not by choice…


“A piece of our beet digger broke, so we’ll be fixing the beet digger tomorrow.”

Just a small setback for Pierce and her husband Matt. Both are in their early 30s, and have been growing beets, hay and sunflowers on this property since they graduated high school. And Sondra’s taken a leading role.

“Soon as I had my son, cause I had my son very early, I would put his car seat in the tractor and he would ride with me.”

Outfitting the tractor with a car seat was out of necessity. Her husband took on a full-time job off the farm to make ends meet.

(Photo Courtesy Harvest Public Media)

(Photo Courtesy Harvest Public Media)

“A lot of the farming has fallen on me. So he would go to work, 9 to 5, and I would do the farm work that needed to get done then and then he would get home and do a lot of the other stuff.”

Leaving Sondra to pick up domestic duties too: Taking care of their three kids, and cleaning the house right after digging beets. And she’s emblematic of a whole segment of female farmers, part of a husband and wife team attempting to keep a multi-generational farm afloat. In the U.S. married couples run about a third of farms. But because of the way farm operations are structured, men show up in the data more often. Same is true of the Pierces’ farm.

“Technically I don’t own the farm. I mean I just work on it. Most of the things we sell are always in his name. Maybe some of the women are there, they’re just behind the scenes.”

“Women have always worked in agriculture, historically. I think a key issue is whether or not it’s counted.”

Julie Zimmerman is a rural sociologist at the University of Kentucky. She studies how women’s roles on the farm have changed over time. Every five years the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts what’s called the farm census, which gathers demographic data about farmers. Zimmerman says how that census is conducted matters. The picture of what an average farm looks like changes depending on how the questions are asked.

“If you see working on your farm as being part of your role, as the spouse or the wife as helping out, then you might not even recognize it as being ‘work on the farm,’ even if you’re doing it all the time.”

The farm census shows the percentage of women farmers climbing. That higher representation in agriculture means women are taking on leadership roles too.

Mary Kraft walks through the milking parlor of Badger Creek Dairy outside Fort Morgan, Colorado. She and two of her employees whistle at the black and white cows, coaxing them into the stalls.

“So the milk comes out of a cow at 101 degrees…”

The dairy is huge. Kraft and her husband split the duties on the farm 50-50. They milk more than 5,000 cows every day. As farms have become more high-tech, the skills needed to be a successful farmer have changed. Now, farmers need to know how to work a spreadsheet as well as a combine.

“In the past you had to be this big, burly guy with forearms the size of a post in order to turn a tractor because they didn’t have power steering.”

Kraft oversees her high-tech dairy from an office on site. Her MBA hangs on the wall by her desk. She calls herself a farmer, but she’s also a CFO, a manager of 75 employees and in charge of marketing and public relations.

“It used to be you didn’t inherit if you were a girl from a farm family. And I think anymore people are going, ‘I want somebody who’s going to carry on the farm. So if it’s the young lady… awesome.’”

That’s a symptom of changing attitudes and expectations about women, and the type of work they do, both on the farm and off.

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