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Small & Home-based Business

Women in Agriculture

Women-owned and -operated farms and ranches are an important and interesting subset of small and home-based business owners in the U.S. While the total number of farms has been declining for many years, the number owned and operated by women is increasing.

Data from the 2001 Family Farm Report by ERS show that in 1978, for example, women owned 5.2 percent of all farms; by 1997, that number increased to 8.6 percent (10.6 percent among non-white farmers). Today approximately 165,000 farms are run by women, and demographic, social, and economic factors indicate that the number will keep rising.

Women operators are generally full owners of their farms and live on their property. Traditionally, many inherited the farms as widows and chose to continue the family business. Beginning in 1982, the average age of women farmers began to decrease and by 1997 more than 40 percent were under 55 years old. More women are making the choice to own and manage their own farms, and one of NIFA's goals is to provide them with the tools they need to succeed.

Nearly half of these women regard farming as their primary occupation, though the financial rewards are not great. Most women-owned farms are small, diversified, and financially at-risk. Nearly 70 percent of them have less than 140 acres, nearly 80 percent report annual sales under $25,000, and they are more likely than other farms to raise livestock or high-value crops.

NIFA addresses the special needs of women and other minority farmers through core funding to support research, education, and extension at the land-grant colleges, and through competitive funding opportunities such as the Agriculture Risk Management Education and Funding Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers.

Examples of these programs:

Established through competitive funds in 2001, the North Central Risk Management Education Center at the University of Illinois already boasts a strong record of support for women farmers. Center funding and coordination have generated extension programs in all 12 states across the region focusing on the needs of women in agriculture, working with women to identify the specific risks they face, and providing them with the necessary information and tools to overcome these risks.

The programs include educational workshops and online information and networking through the “Heart of the Farm” project in Wisconsin. The education center also sponsors annual Women in Agriculture conferences in South Dakota, and grass roots Risk Management Clubs led by women farmers in Nebraska.

The “Women in Ag” program at the University of Nebraska provides risk management education to women farmers, giving them the tools and information they need to make informed decisions. NIFA funding recently supported the program's 19th Women in Ag conference, and the expansion of the program's networking capacity.

In several northeastern states, Women in Agriculture Networks (WagN) provide education, technical assistance, and networking opportunities to increase the number of women owning and operating profitable farms and agriculture-related businesses. While WagN programs are closely tied to their state extension office, they are often strengthened by collaboration with other agencies.

Through Funding Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers, NIFA recently provided substantial support to the Vermont WagN program to expand the pre-business planning program across the state and also reach women farmers in the early and mid stages of business development.


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