Women Play Larger Role in Business of Farming

Women form the backbone of the global agricultural economy, yet their contributions have been largely ignored abroad and at home. A new study says 81 percent of the women who live on U.S. farms and ranches are involved in day-to-day operations.

Prof. Carolyn Sachs

LAKE WALES, Fla. (WOMENSENEWS)-Marcia Lightsey has always enjoyed working with farm animals, but when she was in high school, she couldn't join Future Farmers of America-girls were not allowed.

So Lightsey did what many girls did-and what many farm wives continue to do to this day. She hitched her wagon to a man named Cary, her school's president of the Future Farmers of America, who was campaigning for the state presidency. Soon she was his secretary, writing his speeches and helping with his campaign. And almost 28 years ago, she became his wife and partner on the farm.

Now, before the first glimmer of the day peeks over the eastern horizon, here in the heart of the state's cattle region east of Tampa, Lightsey and other farm wives are up and out. In her case, as the wife of a rancher, Lightsey is up on a horse, working right beside the men to get the drowsy cattle up off the ground. The ranchers must get them into pens, where they can be separated, catalogued, medicated and returned to pasture or sent to the stockyard.

Cattle ranching, a big business in Florida as well as in a half dozen other states, isn't really a man's world. The women work plenty, if not as hard physically, at least for as long as-if not longer than-men.

Americans tucking into their holiday dinners this week might consider the woman's role in the nation's dwindling number of family farms. There's still a sharp division of labor, as illustrated by Lightsey's experience and as researched by Carolyn Sachs, professor of rural sociology at Pennsylvania State University. Sachs is examining rural women, feminist theory and the environment, addressing inadequacies in the ways rural theories and feminist theories have dealt with rural women's issues.

Rural Women's Issues Largely Overlooked

Overall, the number of farms and farm wives has decreased dramatically. Between 1993 and 1997, the number of farms declined 5 percent to 2.2 million, while total farm acreage declined 1.3 percent, according to government figures.

Marcia LightseyStill, the women who remain on farms do much of the work. According to a recent survey by the National Agricultural Statistics Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 81 percent of women living on farms are involved in the day-to-day operations, even though only 46 percent were raised on farms and fully 50 percent have other paying jobs off the farm.

“The men are really the hard workers here. They have to do the heavy work, they're on the ground wrestling the cattle,” Lightsey said. “The women are on the horses.”

In some areas, organizations such as the Women's Agricultural Network are being formed to raise the profile of women on farms. The network, which concentrates on farms in Vermont and other New England states, is a collaborative effort of the University of Vermont Extension System, the Women's Small Business Program, the University of Vermont's Center for Sustainable Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Women form the backbone of our global agricultural economy, yet their role has been largely overlooked throughout history,” said U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, in a letter to the group. “Your efforts ... are at the forefront of empowering women and changing the perception of women's role in agriculture worldwide.”

Back in Florida, Lightsey and her husband, Cary Lightsey, own a medium-sized operation, 2,600 head of white-faced red cattle on three separate ranches. And by the way, ranchers count only the females when figuring their herds.

Forget Bulls and Calves-‘It's Your Mama Cows That Make Your Living'

“You don't count your bulls and you don't count your calves,” Marcia Lightsey explained. “It's your mama cows that make your living for you.”

Florida sends more than 1 million calves to market each year, bringing in $300 million to ranchers. Seven counties in the south central part of the state account for almost all the pastureland, and it's the largest cattle-raising region east of the Mississippi River. Nationwide, about 100 million head of cattle are in “inventory” at any one time, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Before she gets on that horse, Lightsey's already gone through a list of other chores. She's the one who sorts the medications and gets all the “hot shots” in the syringe ready, so the animals can be properly and quickly medicated. More often than not, she makes breakfast before they head out the door. When they come back, she's the one who makes dinner, does the books, pays the bills, serves as business manager and secretary, writes the letters and markets their product.

Lightsey said that men handle the paperwork only in the large agribusinesses, not on family farms like theirs. The men also do all the political work, while the women stay home or pitch their product in grocery stores and schools.

“We support our husbands. We do a lot of the legwork,” she said.

At the end of this month, Lightsey becomes the president of Florida Cattlewomen Inc. Education and marketing are high on that group's agenda, and those are areas in which Lightsey is particularly skilled. Her work creating new labels at Publix grocery stores on behalf of the Florida Beef Council increased fresh meat sales by 700 percent and Hormel's Full Cooked Beef Roast by an astounding 3,000 percent.

Survey of 7,500 Farm Families Finds Women Only 10 Percent of Principals

At least in Florida, a community property state, women own half the family farms too, unless the men themselves hold them through other corporate filings. And women remain an essential part of the business.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service, in conjunction with Pennsylvania State University, surveyed 7,500 farm families across the nation. It found that 10 percent of the women classified themselves as the principal farm operator, while nearly one-third considered themselves full partners in the business. Another 40 percent said they were the business managers or helpers and the remaining 19 percent said they were not involved directly in the farm operation.

The median age of women on farms is 53. Nearly one-quarter of the women have completed some college, while 15 percent have at least a four-year degree. Sachs is using the statistics from the survey to create a more in-depth report on the role of women in family farms.

Nancy Cook Lauer is a journalist covering state government in Tallahassee, Fla. She holds a master's degree in information studies from Florida State University. She recently won a national first place award from the Association of Capital Reporters and Editors.

For more information:

The Women's Agricultural Network:

American Agri-Women:

Association of Women in Agriculture:

U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service: