Natalie Gilbert can make heads turn.
The sight of her driving a tillage tractor down her road in rural Tippecanoe County can make passers-by do a double take, point and utter just enough words to get their neighbor to look at the girl driving the massive machine.
"It made me feel good, a sense of accomplishment," the 35-year-old Gilbert told the Journal & Courier .
Gilbert and her husband, Greg, own Gilbert Farms, a 3,500-acre soybean and corn production farm operation south of Lafayette. Although the duo run the farm together, Natalie Gilbert often assumes roles traditionally consigned to men, such as driving a combine, operating a tiller or bringing seed to the field. She's also expanded the operations by leasing land and negotiating major equipment purchases.
Although farming still is a predominantly male profession, women are inching their way past the grass ceiling, bringing with them a creative approach to farming, a concern for sustainability and a deep emotional connection to the land, according to regional agriculture experts.
In Tippecanoe County, the number of female farm operators increased 32 percent from 2002 to 2012, rising from 280 to 369 — surpassing the 21 percent growth for Indiana and the 18 percent growth for the nation, according to USDA Census of Agriculture reports.
Jennifer Filipiak, associate Midwest director for American Farmland Trust, said the percentage of women who have influence over farmland likely is much higher.
Since the census of agriculture data uses farmer survey information, women landowners who do not farm are omitted, she said.
"There are more women who have a say in farmland than the (agriculture) census tells us," she said.
Mark Eastman is the Tippecanoe County district conservationist for USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
In the past five years, Eastman has worked with more female farmers or decision makers, he said.
"That glass ceiling where it's been all male farmers is disappearing," he said. "It's (now more) a family affair. Everybody does their part with the operation."
Natalie Gilbert's willingness to jump behind the wheel of a tillage tractor or combine saves the farm at least $40,000 a year, Greg Gilbert said.
"By her becoming an operator on the farm, we eliminated the need to go out and hire ... a farmhand," he said.
His wife said women today are more business savvy and she is simply putting that financial literacy to work.
"As a business owner, you do what you have to do," she said.
Reasons for the increase in women farm operators vary.
Filipiak said women tend to outlive men, so they might inherit farmland from a late husband or other relative.
Natalie Gilbert inherited 2,000 acres from her late grandfather in 2003.
Greg Gilbert said changes in technology have made farming much less labor-intensive.
"No longer is the equipment gears and levers," he said. "Now, it's push buttons. It's GPS. It's automated. It's just like your iPhone."
Natalie Gilbert, however, still faces challenges, such as condescension from men who work in the industry.
"The biggest challenge would be that men would assume that you're not as educated on the topics of farming," she said.
But she said the shift in farming reflects the overall change in cultural attitudes regarding women.
"Back then, it was just not socially acceptable," she said. "Women weren't supposed to be doing that. That shift has happened. It is more acceptable. People don't view women like they used to."
Women also bring a diverse perspective to the table, according to experts.
Since many women may be new to farming, they are more willing to try different or novel techniques such as taking an agritourism approach, Eastman said.
Filipiak said women have a deep emotional connection to family land and often consider how it will pass from one generation to the next.
"They care very deeply about the health of the land and the health of the farming community," she said.
Although Greg Gilbert wanted to farm for profit, his wife had other ideas in mind.
"I really hadn't planned on being a farmer," she said. "It definitely wasn't on my radar. I wanted to keep the family farm and preserve that for the next generation. I didn't want it to be sold."--By Taya Flores, Journal & Courier