Women Gaining Responsibility And Visibility In Agriculture

The USDA’s Census of Agriculture provides a detailed look at the state and health of agriculture in the United States every five years. It also gives some insight into trends that are shaping and changing the industry.

One big reveal from the last Census in 2017 was the growing number of women involved in agriculture. They scored big gains in production as well as leadership roles.

The national numbers tell an interesting story. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the number of farms may be decreasing, but the overall number of agricultural producers rose from 3.18 million in 2012 to 3.4 million in 2017, an increase of 7 percent.

The number of female producers, however, rose from 969,672 to more than 1.2 million during that period, representing a 26.5 percent increase.

Granted, the USDA changed the way demographic data was collected in 2017, which could have influenced this drastic increase, but the numbers have undeniably improved since 2012.

That year, the Census recorded a 6 percent decline in the number of female producers and a 3.1 percent decline in the number of producers overall compared with 2007 figures.

As of 2017, women accounted for 36 percent of the nation’s producers, compared with 30 percent in 2012. The number of farms solely owned and operated by women remains small, at 9 percent nationally.

Local growth

Locally, the numbers echo the national trend.

In 2012, Bedford County had 1,210 farms, 553 female producers on 530 farms, and 140 farms with principal female producers. The actual number of principal female producers was not tallied.

By 2017, there were 1,159 farms, 642 female producers on 613 farms, and 381 farms reporting a total of 387 principal female producers.

For Blair County, there were 525 farms in 2012, 186 female producers on 171 of those farms, and 56 farms with principal female producers.

By 2017 Blair County saw a decrease to 496 farms, but there were 317 female producers on 293 of those farms, and 172 farms reporting a total of 183 principal female producers.

The involvement of women comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with farming, considering that most operations in the area are family businesses.

What’s more interesting is the fact that women are taking on considerably different roles than they’ve assumed in the past and becoming more visible as leaders and innovators.

Cassie Yost, a dairy educator for the Penn State Extension in Huntingdon County, said many of the outreach and education programs she oversees are tailored to female producers who are interested in adding diversification to their families’ businesses and want to introduce more value-added products .

“Men and women gravitate to specific roles on farms depending on their own skills and strengths,” Yost said. “Lately we’ve been looking to get women who are involved in agriculture introduced to newer topics and networking with each other.”

Changing roles

The 2017 Census of Agriculture found that female producers were most involved in day-to-day decisions and record keeping/financial management. Male producers had higher rates of involvement than females in land use/crop decisions and livestock decisions.

That’s not exactly an accurate picture of farming in the Cove.

“Women are certainly making a mark here for a number of reasons,” said John Burket, the dairy manager at Burket Falls Farm in East Freedom. “In general, women seem to have more patience than men for dealing with animals and livestock, and now have many more positions as herd managers and caretakers. That’s a high-paying position today, considering the very large herds they deal with.”

There are a number of female herd managers in the Cove region, including Caroline Zimmerman, who is responsible for Dry Creek Farm’s 260-cow dairy operation in Martinsburg.

Technology’s influence

One reason women are taking on more demanding jobs in agriculture is that the nature of the work has changed with the introduction of robotics, automation, and data computation.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with more women’s rights or anything in the media,” Yost said, but is tied more to the fact that agricultural career opportunities have become very broad and diverse.

“There are opportunities in agriculture now way beyond just [labor],” said Jennifer Heltzel, who is the herd manager for the fourth-generation Piney Mar Farm in Martinsburg, which she operates alongside her husband Andrew. “Technology takes some of the physical labor out of the puzzle and allows for a wider set of people , including women, to be involved in more aspects of farming.”

Pedometers and other technology tools collect data for each of Piney Mar’s 130 milk cows, making it easier for Heltzel to assess their health and detect potential problems early.

“We have milking parlors that make it a lot easier to milk our cows than in the past, and feeding systems take away the need to shovel a couple tons of feed every day,” she said. “That doesn’t mean it’s not still an incredibly hard job. Working with animals can be physically taxing and it’s definitely not a desk job.”

Since graduating from college in 1998, Heltzel said she has noticed an increase in younger women going to college to study agricultural science and animal science.

“I would say the majority of students graduating from veterinary schools now are female, even in the large animal field,” she said.

Better opportunities

Look no further than the Future Farmers of America photos and news stories in the Morrisons Cove Herald to see how much things have changed in the local area.

Yearbook photos from the 1980s and 1990s typically contain only a handful of female members, even after the organization’s national constitution was changed to admit women in 1969.

Today, however, young women dominate the photos and are more likely than not serving in their chapters’ leadership positions.

“There’s a healthy ratio of male and female students at our Central Cove FFA Chapter, and it goes to show that women are considering agriculture a viable career opportunity, it’s something they’re interested in and can see a future in,” Heltzel said. “I’m glad those opportunities exist for my daughters. I think it provides them with avenues to explore what leadership means, because FFA is all about leadership development.”

More changes ahead

In her own leadership roles, Heltzel is involved on several national boards. She represents the Northeast Area as an elected director of the Dairy Farmers of America cooperative, serves as treasurer for the National Dairy Board, and is a board member of Dairy Management Inc., a national dairy promotion organization.

“Millennials are taking a very strong interest in leadership outside the operations of their own farms, whether it’s at a national level or on cooperative boards,” she said. “I feel my opinions are as respected and valued as anyone else’s. I don’t know that there’s a difference, we’re all treated equally.”

That’s important, Heltzel said, because agriculture is becoming more diverse in both career opportunities and producers.

“We all need to eat, and we need people from all backgrounds and interest levels to be part of producing food for our country and the world,” she said, predicting that agricultural jobs will become even more diversified in the future.

“In the next 10 years, just like we’ve seen in the last 10, the technology changes are going to be beyond what we can expect or imagine,” Heltzel said.

The USDA’s 2022 Census of Agriculture is underway, with an expected release date of spring or summer 2024. Census surveys will be mailed to farmers and producers in November, and the deadline for responses is February 2023.

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