Women in Farming

Ryanne PilgeramMore Women Find Their Place in Farming

UI sociologist Ryanne Pilgeram is recording female farmers' stories and studying their impact on agriculture

By Paula M. Davenport
From the Fall 2013 "Here We Have Idaho" magazine

After more than 150 years of near ownership exclusion, American women are gaining a foothold on the farm. This time around, many are purchasing land on their own, rather than just marrying into farm families - whose property rights favored second-generation male heirs over farm widows or their daughters.

The latest U.S. Census of Agriculture shows a 30 percent jump, between 1982 and 2007, in the number of women operating or co-operating farms and ranches. Figures come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service report, released in May.

Ryanne Pilgeram - a University of Idaho sociologist who grew up on her family’s Montana farm—is interested in the personal stories and potential trends within this wave of Farmer Janes.

She is about halfway through conducting 36 audiotaped interviews of women who farm in Idaho and Montana. She’ll wrap up the remaining interviews in the months to come. For now, she’s combing through her finished transcripts to better understand the ways women are financing their return to the land, the challenges they may face and the roles they play in sustainable agriculture.

The field is ripe for such a study given the dearth of social science research on the topic, she said. UI senior Bryan Amos of Potlach is assisting her on the study.

Some interesting facts are already popping up, Pilgeram said.

“Women are finding unique, idiosyncratic ways to access land. They’re using retirement savings, gains from investments, military disability benefits, career income, inheritances and proceeds from the sales of non-farm property,” said Pilgeram, an associate professor in the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences.

Most of the women she’s met are content with small farms, said Pilgeram, who snared a competitive UI Seed Grant to advance her project, “Examining the Roles of Women in Sustainable Agriculture.”

That mirrors a national finding. On average, farms operated by women run 210 acres, about half the size of farms run by men, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Census shows.

“While women certainly have dreams and aspirations for their farms and agribusinesses, being a huge company isn’t one of them. Instead, they deeply aspire to be person ally connected to their land and what they’re producing,” Pilgeram said.

The nation’s increasing support for the locavore movement, farmer’s markets, food co-ops, roadside stands and community-supported agriculture are opening sales opportunities for women on smaller farms.

It’s a trend that may continue, Pilgeram said. “The number of women operating new farms has steadily increased from 12 percent to 19 percent between 1998 and the 2007 Agriculture Census.”

Pilgeram expects to publish at least two academic papers when her project is completed. Her aim is “to evaluate the social equity of sustainable agriculture as practiced in the Northwest and potentially help this system become more equitable.”