The numbers never lie, except when they do. The last Census of Agriculture, conducted in 2012, showed us that the number of women in the industry has declined. While that’s true based on the questions that the National Agricultural Statistics Service asked, it doesn’t fully capture women’s roles on American agriculture.
“Women across the board are becoming, at least in a recognizable sense, more involved in agriculture on all fronts: production agriculture, other ag business, ag education,” said Doris Mold, president of American Agri-Women. “And if we look at land-grant universities and places with ag programs, in many instances, women predominate.”
Is this something that can be better documented for the census being taken next year? The answer is a solid “maybe” mixed with a bit of “somewhat.”
The last census showed a decline in women involved in production agriculture, particularly those recorded as primary operators of a farm. Yet, that decline was less dramatic than the drop documented in men. Overall, women accounted for nearly $13 billion in total agricultural products sold across the nation. Still, women can get overlooked in census documents because of the specifics of their role and how it’s viewed culturally or regionally.
Women “have been this ‘silent partner,’ as it was, and that could be because of the culture or because of the families,” Mold said. Women “have to sign off on loan documents, they are doing the books, they are doing many other things, though they aren’t considered the farmer. Yet they would be sorely missed if they weren’t there in the farming operation. A lot of what these women do is a management function.”
There are also logistical reasons. Some operations are so complex and have so many people involved that there isn’t space in the census documents to gather information on everyone. Those kinds of farms have to choose which people are allowed additional information about how they’re involved. Then, there’s the fact that women often are involved in smaller operations, which Mold suggests could fly under the radar entirely of the census structure.
That means women are sometimes left out of the numbers.
Here’s how that might change: Mold served on an expert USDA panel that was convened last year to discuss the census. The panel came up with specific questions and different ways of posing questions so as to capture information better. The effort is being made. Some of the efforts, though, might not be implemented until the 2022 census.
“Policymakers make decisions about what we do and how we do it, and if our numbers become less significant to them, they’re going to pay less attention to us,” Mold said. “We know, anecdotally, that there have always been women involved in farming operations. Finally, we’re getting to a point where people consider it important enough to try to do an accurate count.”
According to the 2012 census, women in production agriculture were most active in:
- Sugarcane farming, hay farming, and all other crop farming
- Beef Cattle ranching and farming
- Animal aquaculture and other animal production
Only about a third of women reported to be in the ag sector said that farming was their primary occupation, and more than half of all women in ag were older than 55. Fleshing out the data more accurately and more completely will be a matter of asking the right questions.