This week, we continue to celebrate National Women’s History Month in March. Today’s heroines are women farmers. We’ve been growing food and farming the land for centuries in America and around the world.
But even today, it’s still hard to know the number of women farmers worldwide. One source explained that most small-scale farmers are women in developing countries. In the agricultural sector, women are 60% to 80% of the farmers in non-industrialized countries.
What’s the real story about women farmers today? Are the numbers dynamic or static? What does the future of women in farming look like?
Trends and Data
The number of women farmers is growing…and shrinking. The data is inaccurate – no one knows how many or the types of women farmers there are in the world. Country data varies.
For example, the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture counted 3.2 million US. farmers working on 2.1 million farms. There three types of farmers:
- Principal farmers who operate the farm day-to-day
- Second farmers identified as spouses of the principal farmers
- Third farmers are other family members who work the farm
Of the 3.2 million farmers, 288,264 were women – a 6% decrease from 2007 levels. But for all women farmers (principal, second, third) the decrease was 1.6% with 14% of women as the principal farmers.
But one trend is clear: Most small-scale farmers are women and more women in developing countries are working in agriculture.
Despite this trend, women still don’t have the same rights as men when it comes to farming. Gender inequalities continue and it remains a sad reality in the agriculture sector everywhere.
The main challenges for women farmers include:
- Land rights: In countries from Latin America, Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa, laws, tradition and limited access prevent women from owning and inheriting land.
- Small plot size: When women hold land, their plots are generally smaller with poor soil quality. Their land rights are more tenuous than those held by men. The quality and level of crops produced is less.
- Limited agricultural resources: Women farmers produce smaller yields because of limited access to fertilizers, improved seeds, and equipment. These resources can improve soil quality, crop production, and profits for women.
- Access to credit: Women who are head of households have limited credit access, a 5% – 10% disparity. Without credit, women can’t buy seeds, fertilizer, tools or invest in land improvements (farming equipment, irrigation, labor).
- Market access: Women farmers need access to the marketplace. They are limited by poor transportation and infrastructure in rural areas. Women cooperatives and farming groups can help build economies of scale to compete in the marketplace.
Overall, the data is disjointed and depends on geography and type of farmer…
Women Farmers of Tomorrow
Looking ahead, women continue to conserve natural resources and grow resilient crops. Limitations and social barriers do not stop them from growing food for the planet.
More global organizations (FAO, World Bank, International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) have developed programs to improve economic livelihoods, reduce hunger and poverty through agriculture and science.
Consumer groups, NGOs, farmers and private businesses are working to improve the future of farming for women. More details are provided in the report, World agriculture: toward 2015/2030.
Celebrating Women Farmers
Closing the gender gap in farming includes policies that consolidate traditions and laws, partnerships in farming and women cooperatives and groups that benefit farmers of all types.
Here are some women who fill the gaps in farming:
- Jahanara Begum from Bangladesh. She ignored the critics and became a Farm Business Advisor. She started selling vegetable seeds and other inputs like fertilizers, vermicompost and pest management tools to farmers. Begum used funding from Profitable Opportunities for Food Security (PROOFS), to help 250 producer groups. And she received a loan from a financial institution to expand her business.
- Esperanza Dionisio Castillo from Peru is the general manager of the Pangoa Cooperative, a cocoa growing union in San Martín de Pangoa. Castillo proved herself by increasing profits to rural families. She provides support for other women through leadership training from the cooperative and access to credit from the social investment fund Root Capital.
- Josefina dos Santos Lourenço from Mozambique is an entrepreneur who sells food from her small market stand to help her family. Nearly 90% of women work in Mozambican agriculture, but only a quarter are land owners. Lourenço received training and funding from Fintrac’s Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation program. She now helps 1,000 farmers.
- Ruramiso Mashumba from Zimbabwe works in agribusiness, where 70% of men are employers, while women remain unpaid. Mashumba is a trailblazer for women agripreneurs and is the national chair of the Zimbabwe Farmers Union Young Farmers’ Club. Her organization, Mnandi Africa, helps rural woman fight poverty and malnutrition by empowering them with skills and knowledge in agriculture.
- Nicole Sugerman in Pennsylvania farms the Henry Got Crops CSA. Her farm is operated and managed by women. It was happenstance that internships and apprentices were filled by women. Sugerman encourages women students to be farmers or anything else they want to be. Women learn to handle heavy equipment and the business of farming. Her community-supported agriculture is critical to the future of farming and highlights the need for new farmers.
I love sharing stories about people who solve problems like the agripreneurs above!
One thing I know about the world – it’s easy to point out the problems. Time to move past easy and do the hard work of creating solutions.
Joint projects and shared ideas from all sides create the innovations we need. It’s time to use our hearts and minds to solve problems.
“Sculpture is like farming. If you just keep at it, you can get quite a lot done.”
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