When farmer Sondra Pierce had her first child, she decided to forgo daycare.
“Soon as I had my son, because I had my son very early, I would put his car seat in the tractor and he would ride with me,” Pierce says.
During harvest on her sugar beet farm in rural Boulder County, Colo., she’d buckle him up in the seat right next to her.
Because she’s a woman in her early 30s, Pierce doesn’t look like the average American principal operator – the person who calls the shots – on a farm. The average American farmer is a white man in his late 50s. He’s 58.3 years old to be exact, according to data from the latest Census of Agriculture.
But if you dig a little deeper you’ll find women like Sondra Pierce are showing up in new roles, often in the field at the helm of a tractor. And Pierce is emblematic of a whole segment of female farmers, part of a husband and wife team attempting to keep a multi-generational farm afloat. In the U.S. married couples run about a third of farms, but because of the way farm operations are structured, and census questions are asked, men show up in the data more often.
The percentage of women farmers is climbing, according to USDA data. Even while the total number of farmers is dropping nationwide, women are taking up a larger piece of the pie. In 2002 about 27 percent of farmers were women. In 2012 that increased to more than 30 percent. The share of U.S. farms primarily operated by women has steadily increased over the past three decades, from 5 percent in 1978 to nearly 14 percent by 2012.
Both Pierce and her husband Matt have been growing sugar beets, hay and sunflowers since they graduated high school. Sondra has taken a leading role. Outfitting the tractor with a car seat was out of necessity. Her husband took on a full-time job off the farm to make ends meet.
“A lot of the farming has fallen on me,” Sondra Pierce said. “He would go to work, 9 to 5, and I would do the farm work that needed to get done then and then he would get home and do a lot of the other stuff.”
For the past three years, the Pierces have split the farm duties 50-50, with one driving the beet digger while the other drives the truck where they’re deposited alongside. But even though Pierce works the same amount as her husband, sometimes more, it’s not always counted that way.
“Technically I don’t own the farm. I mean I just work on it. Most of the things we sell are always in his name,” she said. “Women are there, they’re just behind the scenes.”
Many U.S. farms are joint operations run by married couples, where both spouses split the work, according to a 2013 USDA report. About three-fifths of all female farmers are listed as the second operator on farms operated by men, the report found. Joint operations by a couple are likely to report the husband as the principal operator. The Census of Agriculture didn’t start asking about multiple operators, and their sex, on a single farm until 2002, leaving the picture of what an average farm looks like incomplete. The team that runs the farm is increasingly diverse.
“Women have always worked in agriculture, historically. I think a key issue is whether or not it’s counted,” said Julie Zimmerman, a rural sociologist at the University of Kentucky. She studies how women’s roles on the farm have changed over time.
Every five years farmers receive forms from the USDA’s Census of Agriculture, which gathers demographic data about farmers. Zimmerman says how that census is conducted matters. The picture of what an average farm looks like changes depending on how the questions are asked.
“If you see working on your farm as being part of your role, as the spouse or the wife as helping out, then you might not even recognize it as being ‘work on the farm,’ even if you’re doing it all the time,” Zimmerman said.
Even with more female farmers joining the ranks, that doesn’t mean women who operate farms are enjoying as much success as their male counterparts. As of 2012, 91 percent of farms run by women had less than $50,000 in annual sales. Most female-run farms fill niche markets with the highest percentages of women running equine facilities, specialty crop farms and poultry operations. Women are less likely to show up on cattle feedlots, grain farms and dairies.
A higher representation in agriculture means women are taking on leadership roles and slowly breaking onto national boards of agriculture groups traditionally viewed as “old boys’ clubs,” according to Mary Kraft, co-owner of Badger Creek Dairy outside Fort Morgan, Colo.
Kraft is an outlier among census data. Women are the principal operator on only 5 percent of U.S. dairies. Kraft and her husband split the duties on the farm 50-50. They milk more than 5,000 cows every day. About 30 calves are born every day in Badger Creek’s maternity ward. Each cow sports a Bluetooth collar that collects information about the milk’s weight and protein content each time the animal enters the parlor.
As farms have become more high-tech, the skills needed to be a successful farmer have changed, Kraft says. Now, farmers need to know how to work a spreadsheet as well as a combine. That change has helped many women who want to enter the industry.
“In the past you had to be this big, burly guy with forearms the size of a post in order to turn a tractor because they didn’t have power steering,” Kraft said.
Despite all the change, there’s still a long way to go, Kraft says. When she sits on national boards, she’s often the only woman in the room. Kraft oversees her high-tech dairy from an office on site. Her MBA hangs on the wall by her desk. She calls herself a farmer, but she’s also a CFO, a manager of 75 employees and a director of marketing and public relations.
“It used to be you didn’t inherit if you were a girl from a farm family. And I think anymore people are going, ‘I want somebody who’s going to carry on the farm. So if it’s the young lady... awesome,’” Kraft said.
That attitude is a symptom of changing attitudes and expectations about women, and the type of work they do, both on the farm and off.