Q&A: How women are taking a leadership role in agriculture

Turnips being sold at a farmers market.
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The Minnesota Farmers Union hosted its first Women's Leadership Conference this weekend in Minneapolis.

Among the speakers was Leigh Adcock, executive director of the Iowa-based Women Food and Agriculture Network. Adcock said women own about half of farmland in Minnesota, but they need support as they take on management and leadership roles on farms and in the agricultural industry.

Adcock points to her own organization as proof that women farmers are asserting themselves. She said membership has grown from 300 to 3000 over the past five years.

Q. What does your organization do?

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A. We are an organization that works primarily with women and sustainable agriculture. The USDA's statistics show that the giant majority of women in agriculture are entering at small scale diversified agriculture farming, by which I mean they're starting small farms that raise food for their communities and often originally for their own families. They start making a little extra, they start going to the farmer's market, they start making a business out of it. Between 2002 and 2007 the number of women farm operators grew 30 percent in the US. We're the fastest growing segment of farmers.

Q. What's the next step for women farmers?

A. I think the next step mostly for women is to decide what size and scale is proper for them as a business and also to network and find resources to get to the next level, whatever that level happens to be. As with almost all forms of agriculture the big challenges for women farmers include access to capital and credit, access to land itself, and health care. Finding affordable health care can really make or break a family farm situation, particularly for women who are farming on their on own and don't have a partner or a spouse whose working a job that carries insurance.

Q. Why is farming any different for women?

A. We get that question a lot because we're a network for women. I would say, just like any other industry, it's dominated by men. Which in the U.S. agriculture certainly is. Women have always had organizations within industries where they're in the minority because they need to hear from one another, they need support from one another. Women tend to farm differently, on a smaller scale. So often women that come to our network have been isolated in three different ways. They're culturally isolated because they're women in a male-dominated industry, they're socially isolated because they're doing a different kind of agriculture than is often done in their communities, and then they're geographically isolated. If you're farming, you're out in the middle of no where. You have limited if any access to the Internet. And you're alone almost all day so this network serves as a lifeline emotionally and for information and resources for women farmers.

Q. Were women effected any differently by the economic downturn?

A. It's been very similar, I think. One of the problems still for women when they're looking for access to land and credit, they tend to be overlooked by some of the traditional lenders and traditional sellers, because they're women, so there is some gender bias in agriculture.

Q. What do you think the agriculture industry will look like if women are successful in attaining more leadership positions?

A. Oh, I love that question because I really believe, as do most of the people in our network, that our food and farming system in this country would look so much different if more women were in positions of decision-making and leadership. I think that's probably the case with almost every industry. But in particular around food and health, women are often the caretakers in their family. They're the ones who watch out for their family's health -- and how they eat is a huge part of that. A lot of women become farmers because they began raising food for their families because they want the healthiest, most chemical-free food for their families as possible. So around issues of health and food it's a real natural for women. As women become more active in leadership roles, I think the entire system of healthcare and production of food in this country will change for the better.

Q. How can men and larger society help?

A. A lot of our women members have very supportive farming partners and spouses who are men. A lot of men get it. They get that this kind of agriculture is healthier. They're very supportive of farming women in their family. Certainly that is key if women can feel the support from men in their lives for what they want to do. We have a lot of women who are either purchasing or renting land from fathers or grandfathers, because those men are brave enough and foresighted enough to see that their daughters want to do a kind of farming that's good for the community. So they help them out. Also they can ask women into leadership positions in whatever community activities or county boards or state legislative positions happen to be open, and coach them and mentor them along.

Q. How long is that going to take?

A. Well, we've been at it a while. I don't know; it's just a constant struggle. We haven't really made huge progress in 30 years in elected officials, at least on the U.S. level. We're still fewer than 20 percent of Congress even through we're 51 percent of the population. So it's a constant struggle. I think it's changing. It's a slow ship to turn but we can't stop trying. ]]