With the growth of the women’s movement during the 60s, 70s and 80s, the general society began to recognize what had been evident to rural women all along – that women were an integral part of most farming operations. Although most farm women would not identify themselves as feminists, they seemed justifiably proud of that recognition.
Earlier in the history of American agriculture, rural women tended to be the bookkeepers for farming operations. They have been involved in marketing the products and have tended the gardens that were a mainstay of the diets for farm families. Some were active participants during times like planting or harvest when every available body was pressed into service. But those contributions didn’t show up in the statistics gathered by the Department of Agriculture.
That began to change in the mid-80s when the Census of Farming found that 48.7 percent of women living on farms were employed off the farm. At a time of rural economic crisis, a second source of income off the farm was a matter of economic necessity. That percentage of women in off-farm jobs is much higher in the 2000s, up to 65 percent in 2007.
For some male farmers, the change was difficult to swallow. During the 80s, crisis hotlines were set up to help farmers deal with the stress of no longer being the provider in the family. Mental health professionals documented increased alcohol use and abuse. Farm women sought help for depression.
At a conference in New York state in 1981, Sherrod Perkins, a rural mental health counselor, said, “There is a confusion of roles and rural women are caught with one leg in each camp… What happens to these women?”
One of the rural women she was talking about called out, “They’re tired!” Another laughed, “They’ve got one more child, only this one is grown up.”
In the 90s, the farm crisis eased, and those farm families who survived adapted to the changing roles of women.
In fact, more and more women became farmers in their own right. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the number of female farmers grew nearly 30 percent from 2002 to 2007. That year, there were 306,200 women farmers.
In New Jersey, one in five farmers is a woman, and that fact may be indicative of another trend – women operators tend to be involved in organic farming and community based agriculture. New Jersey is heavily urbanized and farms tend to be small and serve their surrounding cities. More and more women are attracted to the rural lifestyle and the chance to control their food supply.
“I think that food is still really a women’s issue,” says Karen Anderson, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. “It’s a healthy sign of a reconnection between food systems and agriculture that women are interested in farming, not just cooking.”
WIFE, Women Involved in Farm Economics, was one of the organizations that grew from the grassroots of Nebraska into a national lobbying force. Elaine Stuhr (left) was one of its founding members. “Actually, there were a group of women in Sydney, Nebraska, in 1976 who were sitting around the pool and decided that the prices were so low that they really felt they needed to become involved,” Elaine remembers. “We were known for our ‘kitchen table lobbying’ because most of us did our work from our kitchen tables.” Elaine became the state president of WIFE in 1983, and national president in 1990 and ’91. At least once a year, WIFE members would descend on Washington and follow up their kitchen table phone calls with in-person lobbying. “We were known [as the Ladies in Red]. We all wore red because a lot of farmers were really operating in the red.” One of their biggest accomplishments was a change in USDA policies that didn’t recognize the contributions of women in farming operations.
Heather Derr (right) and her husband David share almost all of the duties and chores on their farm in York County Nebraska. “A lot of our friends can’t imagine working with their husbands,” Heather laughs. “[But] we have a fantastic working relationship because, what he enjoys doing, I don’t. And what I enjoy doing is really not high on his list. I love mindless work. I like to get in a tractor and just go.” But even though she is as involved as her husband, Heather would not call herself a feminist. “No. I do not consider myself a feminist at all. But by the same token, don’t tell me I can’t do something until I’ve tried to do it.”
Valerie Kaliff says she learned how to drive a tractor when she was 10, and she still drives a tractor or truck during harvest. But she says attitudes were different when she was growing up. “We were really discouraged to look at agriculture as a career,” Valerie says. “For girls, the opportunities were nursing, teaching, you know, in those ranges. But now, kids have the opportunity if you want.”
Suzanne Ratzlaff of Henderson, Nebraska, is one of those women whose in-town job as a teacher makes it possible for husband Cal to farm full time. “I don’t know, without my income, how a couple [like us] could have made it back then,” Suzanne remembers about when they started. “With my teaching, I have had health insurance. So, that’s really safest over the years.”
Even the male farmers are recognizing the contributions of their wives and partners. Hank Kobza’s wife Bonnie recently learned HTML coding so she could do the Web site for their auctioneering business. “[Women] are just as important as the guy that’s farming,” Hank says, “maybe more so because I know a lot of the wives that take care of the other business besides being in the field.”
Chris Ziegler’s says he wouldn’t be able to farm without his wife Vicky, both because she works two days a week in town and works on the farm. “She’s probably the better half of the partnership, as people would say,” Chris admits. “She does the biggest share of my bookkeeping… And then six weeks a year she is the combine operator.”
Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2009. A partial bibliography of sources is here.