Originally published April 12, 2018 on Nature’s Path Organic
By Sarah West
Organic farming is on the rise, and women play a vital role in that. But there are a few kinks to work out. Maybe you’ve heard the riddle about a father and son that are in a horrible car crash: The father dies instantly and the son is rushed to the hospital. Just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!”
If you are like 85% of participants in a Boston University research project, your answer to “who is the surgeon?” is something other than the correct one, that the surgeon is the boy’s mother. Findings like these are a sobering reminder that despite decades of hard work in the name of gender equality, gender bias has stuck around. Replace “surgeon” with “farmer” in a similar scenario and you’d likely get the same (and possibly more) incorrect assumptions that the farmer must be male. Gender bias gets in the way of farming innovation.
Indeed, agriculture remains an unapologetically male-focused institution. As of the 2012 U.S. census, 30 percent of self-identified farmers are women, three times more than that of the previous three decades. Tellingly, the census data also shows that women control only 7 percent of all farmland, on which they generate only 3 percent of all agricultural sales. Dive a bit deeper into the numbers, and we learn that fewer women are primary farm operators (a census designation that means they are the lead decision-maker and run day-to-day operations), comprising 14 percent of conventional farm primary operators, and 18 percent of organic farm primary operators.
Though they seem small, these are significant advances. And they signal positive change for women and agriculture both. Gender disparity isn’t something that can change overnight. But the evidence is strong that organic and sustainable farming provide meaningful opportunities for women across the globe to make change in a way that conventional agriculture never has.
The U.S. census data corresponds with a global trend of increase in both women and organic farmers. Whether the two are linked is not clear, though existing data suggests that women tend to farm smaller plots of land, focus on producing food for their community, and choose organic and sustainable farming models over commodity crop production. Additionally, women tend to farm with fewer machines and more hand tools, and they employ farming models that benefit and promote family, nutrition, community development, and the environment. Not surprisingly, women farmers make less money than their male counterparts, a wage discrepancy that is somewhat mitigated by the higher value of (and therefore greater incentive to grow) organic foods.
Rather than an intrinsic quality of femaleness, most of these outcomes may instead be the product of women’s long-time marginalization on the traditional family farm. Farm wives and daughters have historically held a secondary position as “farm helpers,” one that grew increasingly obsolete following WWII and the subsequent industrialization of agriculture. As farming became more and more dependent on specialized equipment and chemical technologies, it required fewer farmers to work the land, pushing women out of the loop. Compounding this trend, farm land and knowledge is traditionally passed down from father to son, further excluding wives and daughters from access to central roles on the farm.
With the rise of organic farming, women saw and embraced an alternate way to participate in agriculture. As an emerging industry, organic agriculture’s steep learning curve applied to all new farmers, not just women. Along with the new agricultural model, opportunities grew for everyone outside the fraternity of traditional agriculture – for women, and also land-less or otherwise marginalized men – making for a more inclusive atmosphere of information-sharing, collaboration, and educational opportunities. The organic farming movement proved it was possible to farm intensively on smaller plots, significantly lowering barriers to entry such as access to large tracts of land and expensive machinery with which to work it. It also redefined where farming could take place, opening the door for farming models based in urban and suburban locations, increasing access to farm-generated income into a wider geography of people.
While it’s useful to acknowledge how the organic farming movement has opened doors for women in agriculture, an equally necessary acknowledgement is how the participation of women broadens and deepens the multiple goals of organic and sustainable farming.
While it’s important to avoid sweeping generalizations, existing documentation reveals some specific ways in which women approach farming differently than men do, expanding their objectives beyond the goals of traditional economics. Profit is important to women farmers, but so is quality of life, health and safety, community education, social and environmental justice, and civic duty.
While one approach isn’t necessarily better than the other, creating a more inclusive and innovative environment for solving some of agriculture’s pressing issues (climate change, soil depletion, and pollinator die-off, to name a few) is essential. The more ideas at the table – from all genders – the sooner we’ll find sustainable solutions. Women farmers who focus on collaboration and community improvement would be good voices to have at that table.
Globally, women farmers play an essential role in reducing world hunger. Women entering organic farming as new farmers increase access to food and quality nutrition for their immediate family, as well as families in their community. Similar to findings in North America and Europe, women in developing countries tend to farm with a collaborative spirit, using their leadership positions to increase education, environmental health, and food access in their communities.
Evidence that organic farming helps to empower women’s voices across the globe and vice versa is compelling, but the work to give those voices equal value and influence has only just begun.
The comprehensive paper, Organic Agriculture and Women’s Empowerment, outlines areas of focus they deem necessary to promoting the role of women in global agriculture:
It seems obvious, but maybe history just hasn’t been paying attention: women make up half of the world’s population, so sustainable economic growth (and all of the social and environmental benefits that stem from that) could be as easy as inviting more women to the conversation. In the words of former U.N. Secretary-General, Kofi Annon, “there is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.” Women farmers are fully poised to benefit from and contribute to that process of empowerment, and it’s time to start recognizing their contribution.