The Grass Ceiling for Women in Agriculture


Women have made great strides in recent years in gaining ownership and operating farm businesses.  Today, women make up 31% of all farmers and are principal operators on 13% of U.S. farms, reports USDA. Women own 30% of the farmland across America.

Texas has the most female principle operators, according to the latest 2012 Census data (see map). Arizona has the highest proportion of farmers, ranging from chili pepper growers to alfalfa producers. In Iowa, one out of every four acres of farmland is owned by a woman.

Yet women are bumping up against a “grass” ceiling. Many women can’t break into ownership positions on large commercial farms because of lack of opportunities or cultural disperity on large farms. Of women-operating farms in the U.S., 98% have less than $250,000 in sales.

Female operators by sales class

Not only are women principal operators running farms with smaller sales, these farms are very specialized:

  • Nearly half of female farmers raise livestock;
  • Women who own poultry, specialty crops, grains or dairy operations generate 72% of sales on all women’s farms; and
  • Very few are involved in traditional large commodity farming.Many of the challenges women face as they try to break through the grass ceiling are the same challenges as their male counterparts: securing financial assistance — particularly in a low commodity price cycle — and access to land. Currently, the business of many beginning farm women are not surviving the first five years. Farming with family, especially women who have married into a farm business, can create additional pressures. It can be difficult to make tough decisions about the farm during the day and come together again for a family dinner at the farm homestead that evening.

What can we do to support and promote women in agriculture?

  • Develop support networks offering women the opportunity to work together, share concerns and strengthen their farm-family role. A larger knowledge base and stronger interpersonal relationship skills can increase success.
  • Push leadership on the farm. Women in leadership positions have a multiplier effect: Repeated exposure to female elected officials improves perceptions of female leaders and leads to future electoral gains for women. Look for local or national leadership seminars or online training to boost skills.
  • Encourage women to speak up. Many women working in farming operations are afraid to share new ideas; they hang back if they think that they have nothing new to say or that their ideas fall short of profound.
  • Empower women on the farm. More women should be given the chance to market grain, learn new technologies and run equipment. Today it takes brains to run a farm, not brawn!