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A Woman's Work

October 5, 2011
 
 

More women are owning and managing farms today than ever before

Fueled by automated agriculture and a collapsing gender barrier, statistics show, more women are returning home to farm. Of the 3.3 million farm operators in the U.S., more than 30%—or 1 million—are women. "The percentage of farms now influenced by women is significant," says Danny Klinefelter, Texas A&M economist and director of The Executive Program for Agricultural Producers (TEPAP). "We are seeing more women than ever graduating from TEPAP. They are becoming key decision makers and often the point person for purchasing decisions, as many women manage the books for the farm."

Fast Facts: Women in Ag


  • Of the 3.3 million U.S. farm operators, more than 30%—or 1 million—are women.
  • The total number of women operators has increased 20% from 2002.
  • The number of women considered principal operators of a farm or ranch has increased almost 30% since 2002.

Because women statistically live longer than men, they often inherit the farm. A growing number of women are now the nation’s landowners. More than 75% of women operators are full owners of land, reports USDA. In Iowa, women own 61% of the rented land, notes the Iowa State University Farmland Ownership and Tenure study. In Minnesota, farms operated by women rose from 4,205 in 1997 to 7,361 in 2007, per the USDA census. This number jumps to 30,000 if farms where women are joint operators are counted. That’s 40% of Minnesota farms.

As America begins to transfer farms to the next generation, more women will become decision makers and owner–operators. The following women offer insight into the changing roles of farm women.
 

Growing New Leaders: Pam Johnson, Floyd, Iowa

Authenticity is a core principle for Pam Johnson of Floyd, Iowa. Whether in her role as a farm partner or incoming president of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), she strives to convey authenticity, humbleness and a love for agriculture. "I never want to be singled out for a job because I am a woman; I want to be chosen for what I bring to the table. If I stay true to who I am, there is no question of my intentions," Johnson says.

There is a whole new generation of corn producers that Johnson hopes to connect with in her role as president of the nation’s largest commodity organization in 2012. "What motivates me is
the desire to serve and do rewarding work," she says.

She believes women have the ability to build rapport and credibility with a diverse range of consumers, media, state organizations and producers. As a longtime NCGA member, Johnson has built solid relationships with not only corn growers, but key decision makers, legislators and researchers. She notes the number of women filling ag advocacy roles. Women have a unique
ability to connect with people not only in industry, but in grocery stores, churches and school groups, she adds. It’s one reason NCGA is cosponsoring the CommonGround program, which provides access for women to tell their ag story to an urban audience.

Johnson is excited that more women are in leadership positions within commodity organizations. "There are so many opportunities today for women to gain skills, more than when I was a young wife and mother on the farm," she says. "Women have much to bring to the table, and I hope my leadership at NCGA will facilitate more women working in agriculture."
 

Farming Means Business: Mandy Bryant, Allensville, Ky.

From cleaning out grain bins and bush hogging as a child to running combines and planters as a teenager, Mandy Bryant has been a "jack of all trades" on Long Vue Farms, which spans 5,000 acres in four counties in Kentucky and Tennessee. Bryant holds a master of science degree in agronomy, which keeps her in tune with production issues. But it’s her current management role in land leasing, bookkeeping, marketing and succession planning that challenges her the most.

"With all the volatility in the grain markets, weather and land rental rates, it’s been an interesting year," Bryant says. She and her father work side by side to make marketing decisions and use financial consultants for advice and trading. Lately, Bryant has been seeking business education to fill in the gaps in her financial skills. This past winter, she attended The Executive Program for Agricultural Producers (TEPAP), and she regularly attends industry trade shows and financial seminars.

"It’s a sacrifice to be away from my family, but I feel like I have to constantly look for ways to continue my education to stay competitive," Bryant says.

Her management duties on the farm keep her busy analyzing costs per acre, working with accountants and managing operating loan renewals, cash flow budgets and taxes. This year, she’s been bombarded with paperwork to meet Farm Service Agency requirements and land lease negotiations.

Succession Shifts. During the past two years, the farm has shifted to a team management approach, with both a field manager and assistant manager. Bryant has found this new structure beneficial as her father works with much of the staff behind the scenes and in the field, allowing her to take more of a senior role on the business side.

"Dad and I shadow each other in many areas of the business to stay in close communication as a safety net for both of us," Bryant says. "I’m thankful for that, so he can continue to prepare me for the day when he won’t be there." Bryant lost her grandfather, the family patriarch, this past spring, which has made her more cognizant of learning what she can from her father.

One of the keys to her father’s success has been developing a network of farmers, not only local but across the country, Bryant says. These farmers are his greatest friends, advisers and allies. From trips looking for good deals on equipment to surveying the crops in surrounding states, these connections lead to partners, landlords, employees, good ideas and great equipment trades. Though Bryant has developed strong friendships, there are fewer opportunities for her to network with other women in management roles or at an executive level in farming.

"I don’t have a handful of women farmers I can turn to when markets turn sour, or who can brainstorm with me on the things I deal with each day on the farm," she says.

Having It All. One of three sisters, Bryant was the only sibling to choose the farm as a way of life. She is in line to someday take over the farm business but knows this opportunity comes with strings attached.

There are days when the farm calls early and requires her to stay late, and Bryant doesn’t get to see her seven-year-old son, Bo, when he’s awake. She knows some evenings there won’t be a hot meal on the table and the house probably won’t be spick-and-span, especially not with she and her husband, Billy, both farming (Billy farms with his family in a separate operation).

"I was used to my dad’s career calling for family sacrifice, but not my mother’s. That guilt eats at me," Bryant says. Even though she may not be a "Leave It to Beaver" kind of mom, she is teaching her son about work ethic and tenacity. Bryant is modeling to the next generation that women work on the farm, too, and are respected for it. She and her husband are teaching their son that the whole family can pitch in. She is a woman idealizing the love of a family farm and the joy of a family business.

"I’m building a future and a life around what I do," Bryant adds. "I love that I don’t feel like it’s a job, even when days are difficult. It’s my life. It’s our future, and I love it."
 

Farming Following Loss: Anita Hilliard, Bryant, S.D.

Anita Hilliard is a superwoman. There may be a few rips in her cape, but she keeps flying. After her husband died three years ago at age 35 from a massive heart attack, Hilliard was left not only with deep grief for her high school sweetheart, but also 2,000 acres to farm and market, eight children to raise and many new hats to wear. From grain hauling to tax paying, bookkeeping to lunch making, she does it all. Hilliard and her sons farm 1,800 acres, sharing labor and equipment with father-in-law Terry and brother-in-law Jesse.

A typical day starts at 7 a.m. to get the kids up and ready for school. If she is not in the fields, Hilliard meets at her in-laws’ farm to check on the markets and make decisions regarding the marketing of corn and soybeans. Since her husband did all of the grain marketing previous to his death, Hilliard has had to learn "on the fly." She had no training or experience, and she says it took her a year to feel comfortable with the marketing vocabulary and decisions.

Hilliard attends seminars, reads market reports faithfully and receives daily advice from a market analyst to provide her with as much information and increased knowledge as possible. She has confidence in her marketing consultant, and it’s helpful to be able to draw on her brother-in-law’s years of experience when she has a question. "As far as my technique in marketing, I think I’m less likely to get married to my positions and am quicker to change my positions," Hilliard says. "I trade more often."

Life Balance. As a woman, Hilliard says she is a minority at farm meetings, grain elevators and other ag-related events. "I still get treated more as a secretary than an owner-operator, but that is changing," she says.

At home, she is still mom. Hilliard’s four-year-old is her constant companion—from the tractor to the grocery store. When in the fields, she has lunches made for her older sons, who help after school. During harvest, she runs the grain cart during the day and drives the semi as needed. Then it’s off to spend time with her school-age children at home, along with dinner preparations, homework and listening to the kids read aloud every night.

Despite all the juggling acts, Hilliard says she is blessed to give her children the opportunity to farm with their uncle and grandfather. "There is reward in a good life on a farm, where the family is together and learning a great work ethic," she says. "There is reward in continuing the dream that my husband, Vance, started so many years ago."


Starting From Scratch: Amy Echard, Farmersburg, Iowa

When her husband, Nick, purchased his grandparents’ dairy and started farming from scratch, Amy Echard discovered a sharp learning curve. "My responsibilities are mostly management, but I’ve learned to drop everything to go pick up feed or process pigs," says Echard, who didn’t grow up on a farm.

Their farm went from 250 to 1,500 acres and added a semi business in a short amount of time, which necessitated a new skill set for Echard. She discovered how to let technology work for her on the farm. She now receives text messages or e-mail alerts when loads become available for the semis, or when fuel purchases have been made or markets change. She subscribes to load boards, such as Hoploads.com, where she can post where trucks will be at certain times in case someone needs to move product. She can run the semi miles from her phone and determine pricing. She later files these e-records in her office.

Echard also has established a system for record storage that is accessible and intuitive for both she and her husband. "We don’t always think alike, so discussing where he would look for information aided me in how files were developed and stored," she says.

To keep information overload to a minimum, Echard keeps only records that serve a purpose. The farm’s records reflect what is required by the government, education/training, goals and efficiency. Meeting notes are kept and used as a way to recreate a conversation.

Echard has challenged herself to discover and implement best practices to be more efficient. She began attending Annie’s Project, a state Extension program dedicated to women in agriculture and risk management. While there, she discovered other training programs, and came home with ideas and questions about the farm. Eventually, Nick started attending conferences with her. They now consider farm meetings a retreat, and they tend to talk about their plans more.

"Being married to your business partner and living in the middle of your operation 24 hours a day is challenging," Echard says. "Knowing that you are developing a legacy makes it all worth it."
 

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FEATURED IN: Top Producer - October 2011

 
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