Sara Shepherd is a sixth-generation farmer who really had no intention of becoming a farmer. Though she grew up on the family farm near Stuart, Iowa, and was heavily involved in 4-H as a child, the thought of being a farmer herself was never really on her radar. “I went to college and pursued a career in marketing, nonprofit and economic development work for 12 years afterward,” she says.
When her career took her back to Adair County, and a home two miles away from her parents’ farm, she took a different view of her future. “I loved agriculture and being involved in it, but I thought I’d have to find my own way off the farm,” she says. But Shepherd found her father receptive to her coming back. She began to plan with him how she might take over the family business one day. Then, her dad died, and Shepherd’s new career became very real.
Today, Shepherd grows 500 acres of corn and soybeans. Right before her dad passed away, she restarted the family’s Charolais herd with only four cattle. Today, Shepherd Charolais has 60 head. “I was raised [believing] women can do anything men can do,” Shepherd says. “But, when I came back to the farm, I had to face lengthy discussions with my dad about how I could do it.” Shepherd’s dad wasn’t worried about his daughter’s brains. His concern was whether she had the brawn. “Farming is a physically demanding occupation,” Shepherd acknowledges, and she didn’t really understand how much so until knee surgery and a shoulder injury put her out of commission for a time. “That really taught me a lesson,” she adds.
More Than Physical. There’s more to being a successful producer than the physical demands. Shepherd benefited from her family’s long history in the Adair County community, the local bank’s relationship with the family and advice from farming friends and neighbors. She admits she’s been fortunate in all of these things. She is also beating the odds.
The USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture reports 14% of the nation’s 2.1 million farms have a woman as principal operator--that adds up to about 288,000 operations. In that survey, women were reported to control 7% of the nation’s farmland. Income can be an issue. The Women, Food and Agriculture Network found 75% of female farmers earn less than $25,000 a year. USDA’s 2013 Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) reported farms with female principal operators accounted for $9.3 billion in sales, an average of $5,300 in net farm income per female-manged farms.
Statistics like that aren’t lost on Shepherd, who admits, “I’m a rarity. It’s hard to find someone who is having the exact experience I am.”
Tammy Gray-Steele, executive director and founder of the National Women in Agriculture Association, says Shepherd’s situation as a successful commercial operator is considered unique due to perceptions of fewer benefits going to women in ag roles.
She’s afraid if women continue to face barriers to enter agriculture, “the female farmer will ultimately die.”
Local Market Opportunities. Many women farmers today are benefiting from a growing movement among consumers who want to buy locally grown food from people they know.
“We’re into the era of caring about your body and what you eat,” Gray-Steele explains. She hopes women can benefit from this growing market--although she admits it may not benefit their bottom line. New arrivals in the farming industry, often tend to go into vegetable and fruit production on a small scale and direct market their products.
Katie Olthoff is a good example. She and her husband Bart run a turkey farm north of Ames, Iowa. Bart is a fifth-generation farmer, but for Katie the leap into agriculture was a big one. It’s also been a great outlet for her talents as an educator and writer.
While Olthoff works part-time on the couple’s 100,000-turkey farm, she’s also communications director for the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association and a mom of three.
“Not coming from a farm background, I’ve had to prove myself a lot,” she admits. “Farming is a very traditional lifestyle. Women have always played an important role in agriculture that hasn’t been acknowledged.”
Talking To One Another. Olthoff’s desire to help other women in agriculture led her to start a blog about her own life as a woman on the land. She also works with CommonGround, a volunteer organization of women farmers who, in 2010, began an online conversation about the world of food and farming.
When Olthoff first joined Bart on the farm, she sought out other women who farmed alongside their husbands for advice and help. It was invaluable.
“I believe women should seek out other women,” she says. “Making friends in the industry will help you a ton. It adds credibility when someone else can speak to your strengths.”
In addition to her blog, Olthoff shares her love for the farm as a children’s author. Her non-fiction “My Family’s Corn Farm” tells the story of a young farm girl, who takes readers on a tour of her family farm, explaining how corn is grown and how it’s used.
A former teacher, Olthoff uses children’s books to bring agriculture’s story to grade-school readers. Most recently she published “My Family’s Wind Farm” explaining how energy is produced on the farm.
Olthoff addresses the reasons she and Bart farm in her blog. At the top of that list: “We are farming because we were blessed with an amazing opportunity,” she writes.
It’s a sentiment Shepherd shares as well. She says the shift into full-time agriculture has been well worth the hard work and effort.
“I would encourage women to take the leap into agriculture,” Shepherd says. “It’s the best decision I ever made.”
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