Date of Award
When examining data from the most recent US Census of Agriculture (2012), I noticed a distinct imbalance between the percentages of male and female farmers, both in the country and in Vermont. Sales from women-owned farms represent only 3.3 percent of the total of U.S. agricultural sales, and in Vermont, women were the principal operators of 22.38 percent of farms. I wanted to examine the factors that led to these imbalances, and also understand from women farmers themselves what strategies they used to overcome these obstacles. The theories of agency and empowerment can be used in explaining women’s inequality in agricultural spheres: agency, usually referencing decision-making power, leads into the process of empowerment. Empowerment is often a “fuzzy” term, or difficult to define, but it revolves around the ability to make choices, access to resources, as well as the subcomponent of achievement. I hoped to find with my research how women farmers went about the processes of agency and empowerment on their farms.
I interviewed nineteen women farmers in Vermont from nine different counties about how they started farming, the structure and mission of their farm businesses, employment and management structures, use of support networks and organizations, necessary skills for farming, and whether they felt that their experiences in the world of agriculture were different due to their gender. In their answers to these questions, I teased out what barriers they perceived to their equality in agriculture, how they tried to surmount them as individuals, and also how they used support systems and other collectives to their advantage in the pursuit of both increased agency and empowerment. Although I did hear some stories of overt sexism and unfairness due to gender from some women, my overall findings were less negative/pessimistic and more focused towards an optimistic, equal future than I had expected to find. Many of the women I interviewed had diversification strategies in place on their farms, and many also combined farming with agritourism ventures. Both of these strategies offered an opportunity for agency and empowerment.
Women tended to require hands-on instruction in order to comfortably learn new farming skills. Many women noted the importance of informal support networks of other female farmers as a factor of their successes both in learning these skills and in terms of emotional support, and stressed the importance of the Internet in forming and sustaining such networks. These results can be useful to Extension and other agricultural programs who interact with women farmers on a regular basis, as some women felt that these formal networks and organizations did not adequately serve their needs.
Putscher, Caroline R., "Agency and empowerment on women-owned farms: A Vermont agricultural case study" (2018). Food Systems Master's Project Reports. 7.