Women make strides on farms

BY KATIE HEINE | MAY 06, 2011 7:20 AM

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Janet Wilson picked at a patch of soil with a crushed beer can on April 29 in search of a purple corn kernel.

It was the first plant of the year for Wilson and her brother, who farm approximately 1,800 acres of land just south of Iowa City. And though Wilson is no longer a full-time farmer, she still plays an important role in the farming business.

“If I could [farm full-time], that’s what I’d do,” she said.

According to the most recent Census of Agriculture in 2007, many women are opting to do the same. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of women who were principal operators of farms or ranches increased by nearly 30 percent, according to the census. In Iowa, almost 8,500 of the roughly 84,000 principal farm operators were women — around 10 percent.

Women have long played an essential role on the farm, but their roles have changed over the years.

The Johnson County Historical Society hosted a panel discussion on April 28 that featured six women with farming experience. Much of the discussion revolved around the different roles each woman held on the farm.

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At 90 years old, Marge Miller has seen and experienced firsthand the evolution of women farmers.
She was born and raised on a farm, and she still lives on a farm in Sharon Township, a rural area approximately 10 miles south of Iowa City.

“It used to be the woman’s place was in the home, but I think women have become partners with their husbands,” Miller said.

She said farming is like running a business, and women play important roles in making that business successful.

“Farming is not just a hobby, it’s a living,” she said.

Younger generations of women continue to have an interest in agriculture. According to the Future Farmers of America website, 38 percent of its more than 500,000-person membership are female. Also, women hold more than 50 percent of the state leadership positions.

As women continue to have a presence in agriculture, many organizations exist to support their efforts.

The University of Vermont Extension Women’s Agriculture Network strives to support women who want to farm by providing women with the necessary knowledge to start and run a successful farm.

“When women-owned farms are successful and thriving, it’s good for their families, their communities, and everyone around them,” said Beth Holtzman, an outreach coordinator for the Women’s Agricultural Network.

Though many women are involved with farm work today, Miller said, it’s become necessary for many to have a second job. In the 1960s, Miller and her husband operated a coin-laundry machine in Iowa City to earn extra income. A few decades later, the couple opened Cookies and More in the Old Capitol Town Center to help support their four daughters.

“As farmers, you are at the mercy of the market,” Miller said.

Because of advanced technology and machinery, many of the female farmers at last week’s panel discussion said less physical labor is required of today’s farmers. But Wilson said she misses the “muscle work.”

Wilson spent 13 years farming full-time and raising hogs, she said. Today, the 57-year-old works full time as a veterinarian’s assistant in Iowa City and only farms part-time. But she stays busy during the fall driving combines, tractors, and semis, and she is always around to help in any way she can, she said. Collaboration among men and women is crucial for success, she noted.

“I never try to make anyone think I’m the boss,” Wilson said.

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