(Bloomberg) -- The Longleys have been in the farming business for four generations in Aledo, Illinois. During that time -- 114 years in all -- they’ve never had a woman running their corn and soybean operation.
John Longley is preparing to turn the reins over to his 26- year-old daughter, Kate Danner.
“Almost anyone can run the tractor,” said Danner, who graduated from Iowa State University in 2012 with degrees in agronomy, farm management and environmental studies. “It’s really the money in the books and how good of a business manager you are that helps the farmer ride the test of time.”
At a time when a third of U.S. farmers are 65 or older and fewer young people are joining them, more women are stepping in to help fill the void, lured by surging agricultural profit and technological advances that have reduced the industry’s reliance on manual labor. In 2012, females accounted for 14 percent of the 2.1 million principal farm operators, up from 5 percent in 1978, government data show.
Agriculture has boomed over the past decade in the U.S., the world’s largest agricultural exporter. Farm income this decade is the highest ever, averaging more than $116 billion annually since 2010, more than double what it was in the 1990s, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show. Land values are at records, after prices surged in recent years for corn and soybeans, the two biggest crops, and for livestock.
While women have always played important roles on family farms, more are running the operation and showing up in new markets for niche crops, organic produce or direct sales to consumers through community-supported agriculture or farmers markets, said Michael Stolp, a business adviser for Northwest Farm Credit Services in Spokane, Washington.
With seeds that resist pests and tractors that drive themselves, operating a farm today requires less manual labor and more business-management skills, creating more opportunities for women, he said.
“This is way more than cows and plows,” Stolp said. “As farming becomes more complex, you need more diverse perspectives. Farming is becoming more professionalized, which means multiple career paths.”
Hannah Poush and her husband, Adam, run her family’s Cider Works Farms, an apple, pear and cherry orchard in Orondo, Washington, founded in 1980 by her father, who later added a retail shop. She manages the business, from payroll and bookkeeping to complying with food-safety standards.
“I don’t have my father’s green thumb,” Poush said. “I’m not mechanical, and my husband isn’t really either. But I’ve also realized there’s a lot of different ways to be involved. We’re not getting wealthy doing this, but it’s a life that has a lot of meaning.”
While more women are farmers now than three decades ago, there are signs the influx may have slowed along with a contraction in the overall industry. In 2012, females accounted for 13.7 percent of all principal farm operators, down from 13.9 percent in 2007, USDA data show. The number of farms declined 5.9 percent over the period, with fewer operators and less land devoted to agriculture.
Getting into farming also isn’t cheap. It requires a lot of capital to buy or rent land and equipment and materials, which can be a barrier to newcomers of any gender, Carl Zulauf, an agricultural economist at Ohio State University in Columbus.
“It’s not necessarily a career you jump into,” Zulauf said. “If you’re starting with nothing, and you think you’re going to start with a 3,000-acre farm, in most cases that’s just not a feasible option.”
The value of U.S. farmland has surged 37 percent this decade to a record $2,950 an acre last year, government data show. In Iowa, the top corn grower, prices more than doubled over five years to an all-time high of $8,500 an acre.
Rising costs and a slump in crop prices also are putting the squeeze on American farm profit that had surged during the previous decade. Net cash income will slide 22 percent this year to $89.4 billion, the biggest drop since 1932 and the lowest since 2009, the USDA said Feb. 10.
While growing up in the heart of the Corn Belt, Kate Danner says she never considered farming as a career. It wasn’t until she attended a rural community college surrounded by cropland in Galva, Illinois, and saw classmates preparing for agriculture jobs that she became interested in the family business. Danner stayed home for a year to work with her father through a full planting and harvest season before enrolling at Iowa State in Ames.
“I saw the life that my dad had made for himself,” Danner said. “He could make his own schedule. He took the rise and fall with any decision he made. He was the boss. There’s a lot of pride when it’s just your family and it’s your family’s operation. That was the opportunity that I saw. It really does bring him joy that there’s another generation.”
Danner and her husband, Jason, are preparing to take out a $96,000 loan to rent 120 acres on her father’s 1,200-acre farm this year, part of a plan to ease them into the business before they assume control over the next decade. If corn prices hold steady and there’s no unexpected crop damage or weather, they’ll earn about $6,000 in profit, she said.
“Farming attracts people who love the whole experience of agriculture,” said Catherine Bertini, former executive director of the United Nations World Food Program and a professor at Syracuse University in New York. “It’s hard work and it has a lot of risk, but we need to find ways to find these people and get them involved.”
Females are only one part of the slow shift in diversity on American farms, which are overwhelmingly run by older, white men. Hispanic principal operators generated $8.6 billion of agricultural goods from farms in 2012, up from $6.6 billion five years earlier, USDA data show. Black operators increased farm output 38 percent to $846.3 million.
The USDA defines a farm as any enterprise that makes at least $1,000 in production and sales of agricultural goods each year. Operators are the people working on farms or making day- to-day decisions on planting, harvesting and marketing.
The average age of American farmers, based on principal operators, was 58 in 2012, up from 55 a decade earlier, and 62 percent were 55 or older, USDA data show. That’s fueling a government push to get more women into agriculture.
Krysta Harden, the USDA’s deputy secretary, recently announced a new mentoring network to engage women in the industry. The daughter of Georgia peanut farmers, Harden and her sister will inherit her family’s land someday. While she’s unsure whether either would quit their current jobs to run the place, Harden hopes she’ll be able to find a young woman to take it over in the near term, especially with more female students learning about agriculture.
About 49 percent of undergraduate enrollment at Iowa State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are women, up from 42 percent in 2006 and 20 percent in 1986, according to an e-mail from Brian Meyer, director of college relations.
“Why would you leave half the talent, half the passion, half the interest in the land and in agriculture not involved?” Harden said, sitting in a red pickup truck during a November tour of Danner’s farm about 200 miles (322 kilometers) southwest of Chicago.
“A lot of women, a lot of widows, a lot of daughters, a lot of granddaughters, a lot of nieces are going to inherit land,” Harden said. “For me, it’s about making sure that they understand the value and the importance of keeping that land in agriculture.”
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