Farming tends to evoke the image of men on tractors working the land as the sun rises in the background. But research shows that women are more integral to farming than Super Bowl truck commercials might suggest.
Around the world, women are taking on increasingly larger roles in the agriculture industry. In the United States alone, census data show that nearly one-third of farm operators are now women – over 1 million in all. The number of women who are managing farming operations is growing in other parts of the world as well, albeit at slower rates than in the States.
But while there are more female farmers working the fields or tending to livestock, many of them still face discrimination. That may explain why the same Census report indicates that women tend to run less profitable operations than men in America.
Some 40 percent of women polled by the Women, Food and Agriculture Network say access to capital is a significant barrier, in part because of gender stereotypes, according to Leigh Adcock, WFAN’s executive director.
“We hear on a regular basis that women who approach a lender with a solid business plan in hand are told to come back with their ‘husband or brother,’ or some other man,” she says. “Some women report similar reactions when they approach federal agencies for information on programs or funding.”
While instances of gender discrimination are becoming more infrequent, “they are still a very real barrier to women in agriculture and rural businesses,” Adcock says.
Other issues cited by women of WFAN include a lack of government support; a dearth of affordable health insurance; and limited technical training.
And abroad, the situation for female farmers is even more dire.
“In many societies, laws, tradition and access bar women from owning and inheriting land. Moreover, where women hold land, their plots are generally smaller, of an inferior quality, and with less secure rights than those held by men,” Farming First, an international coalition dedicated to sustainable agricultural development, found.
Yields of female farmers are 20 to 30 percent lower than the yields of men in those regions, the organization found. But “the vast majority of studies suggest that women are just as efficient as men and would achieve the same yields if they had equal access to productive resources and services,” it added in a report.
Most research indicates that greater support for women in agriculture could have profound, positive effects for those who are starving throughout the world.
“[B]ridging this gender yield gap would boost food and nutrition security globally,” Farming First estimates.
National Geographic was more specific on the matter, stating in a report that “closing the gender gap could increase yields in developing countries by up to 4 percent. This could reduce the number of undernourished people by 130 million, or 15 percent.”
Adcock highlighted other positive results that could come from offering female farmers more support.
“Women tend to think of their work and their land in terms of community, rather than commodity,” she says, citing a concept first observed by environmentalist Aldo Leopold.
And as leaders, women are more likely to reach across political and cultural barriers to press important issues. “In agriculture, women can help us begin to address the environmental, health, and food justice damage that the predominant industrial system has wreaked over the past four decades,” she says.