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Exploring Gender Bias in Agriculture

University of Idaho Extension Educator Colette DePhelps recently received a flyer promoting a midwestern farm succession program featuring the photograph of a grandfather with his son and grandson.

The flyer’s image reflects a widely held gender bias in agriculture that misses the reality of the industry. In Idaho, for example, the USDA estimates 70% of farm operations have at least one woman operator and 39% of Idaho farmers and ranchers are women. Nationally, women comprise 36% of all farmers and 55% of all farms have at least one woman operator. Yet, historically, the nation’s agricultural laws and programs have largely catered to males, based on a widely held stereotype that farmers are men.

Earnings Discrepancy

DePhelps oversees the outreach and Extension component of a U of I project exploring how gender bias has shaped policies that create barriers for female farmers, causing them considerable disadvantages in accessing land to farm and many USDA programs.

“Agriculture has been identified as a strongly male occupation. Even though women have always played strong roles in agriculture, they’ve often been identified as a farm helper rather than as a farmer,” DePhelps said.

USDA, which classifies women farmers as a socially disadvantaged and underserved group in several program areas, awarded a four-year grant in 2019 to support the project, titled “Women Farmers on the Rise in the U.S. and Idaho: Understanding and Supporting Women Farm Operators.” UI Extension agricultural economist Paul Lewin and Ryanne Pilgeram, a U of I sociology professor, lead the project’s research side.

“We have a phenomenal research team. They have identified a 151% difference in net farm income between women and men,” DePhelps said. “This means for every $1 a female producer makes, a male producer makes $2.50. Our research team determined inequities in the holding of land, buildings, machinery and equipment are at the root of this gap.”

A primary reason for the earnings discrepancy is that laws and tax codes limited women’s access to farmland until 1982. DePhelps will make women a focal point of her future farm succession planning courses.

“One of the things we are really wanting to focus on is to elevate the conversation of women in farm succession and how women access land,” she said.

Idaho's Female Farmers

"The Vandal Theory" Interviews Colette DePhelps

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Providing Better Support

Project findings, using data from USDA’s Census of Agriculture and other sources, will help DePhelps and her colleagues promote best practices for women farmers and plan Extension programs. Fact sheets and research are published on the Idaho Women in Ag website, where visitors may also register for the Idaho Women in Ag monthly newsletter. DePhelps has presented the project at national and regional conferences and is developing webinars to inform agricultural educators and technical assistance providers about the issue.

USDA estimates there are 17,230 women farmers in Idaho, including 10,896 lead farmers. A survey conducted by the U of I team also speaks to the important roles women serve on Idaho farms.

DePhelps and Pilgeram led seven focus groups of women farmers throughout the state, working with county Extension educators to identify participants. Based on focus group discussions, they drafted a survey sent in spring 2021 to women farmers who participated in Extension programs.

Of 664 women farmers who responded to the survey, 165 indicated they were the principal operator with primary responsibility for work and decisions, while 276 indicated they were a co-principal operator shouldering an equal share of responsibilities.

Childcare is another barrier facing women farmers. About half of the women who responded to a question about children living at home indicated they have children under 5 years old.

“In our focus groups, women really talked about the challenges of being able to access educational programs while still being the primary care provider for children,” DePhelps said.

Elder care was also a challenge women farmers said they face.

A woman stands amid a field of waist-high peas.
Jessica McAleese, co-principal operator of Swift River Farm in Salmon, participates in small scale vegetable production courses through UI Extension.

Simple Changes

DePhelps advocates for several simple changes to help improve the outlook for women farmers. Extension educators and others who provide agricultural programming should be mindful when scheduling to avoid conflicts with time spent transporting children to school or preparing meals. Offering virtual formats can also make programming more accessible to women.

Materials promoting agricultural programs should feature diverse subjects, including women. Expert speakers and promotional materials should reflect the true diversity of the industry. DePhelps ensures that at least half of the expert panelists are women when she organizes such discussions.

In the policy arena, supporting programs aimed at increasing women farmers’ access to land is among her priorities.

“In Extension, we’re looking at if there are particular educational programs we have not been offering that ought to be offered to promote the success of Idaho women farmers and ranchers,” DePhelps said. “We’re also using the data to look at existing programs to say, ‘Is there anything we need to add, modify or change based on what we’ve learned about women farmers?’”

The project is supported by a four-year, $500,000 USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative grant, with award No. 2019-68006-29325. USDA recently extended the project until July 2024.

A woman pets a dog in a field surrounded by sheep.
UI Extension Educator Colette DePhelps hopes to develop programming to better meet the needs of Idaho’s women farmers.

Article by John O’Connell, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences

Photos provided by Colette DePhelps

Published in January 2023

University of Idaho Extension

Physical Address:
E. J. Iddings Agricultural Science Laboratory, Room 52
606 S Rayburn St.
Moscow, ID

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875 Perimeter Drive MS 2338
Moscow, ID 83844-2338

Phone: 208-885-5883

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