Women farmers a growing trend in U.S.

January 28, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

On some farms across the nation, the glass ceiling is cracking.

"Women are more likely [now] to identify themselves as farmers, rather than helpers or farm wives," says Carolyn Sachs, an associate professor of rural sociology at Pennsylvania State University.

Ms. Sachs has interviewed women farmers in California and Pennsylvania for a book that, she said, "is to look at how rural women's lives have changed in the last 30 years."

"Their own perception of their roles has become much more clear," she said in a telephone interview.

Ms. Sachs said she thought the most recent federal tally -- the 1987 Census of Agriculture -- underestimated the percentage of the country's farms owned or operated by women.

The U.S. Census Bureau figure was 6 percent, but Ms. Sachs noted that the census allowed only one person in a household to be identified as the farm operator -- and that often ended up being the man of the house, even if the woman was a full partner in the operation.

By contrast, she said, a national survey of 2,509 farm women, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1985, found that 54 percent of them identified themselves as farm operators.

Most female farmers are part of family teams, Ms. Sachs said, but some are on their own.

"It is often the case," she said, "that women will take over if the husband dies, takes an off-farm job or gets disabled."

In Bucks County, Pa., outside Philadelphia, Anna Simons, 65, has run her 97-acre beef cattle farm for the past 13 years, ever since an illness weakened her husband, 72.

"My husband does what he can," she said, "but he's very limited."

A hired man, now 71, has helped her for more than 25 years to raise crops for cash and to feed the cattle on her homestead and on an additional 200 acres of rented ground.

"There's just no [such] thing as women's lib" on a farm, she said.

"We were liberated way back -- we were allowed to shovel" manure with the men, "shovel for shovel."

Still, said Mrs. Simons, a former director of the Bucks County chapter of the Pennsylvania Farmers Association, a farm woman's lot is better than it once was.

"I think most farmers, speaking of the men, have a different point of view of women . . . nowadays than maybe our fathers did.

"The wife was the wife, no matter how much work she did. Now, she's the decision-making partner."

At the sheep farm that Joan and William MacCauley run as partners on the western edge of Chester County, Pa., also bordering Philadelphia, the first lambs of winter began dropping soon after New Year's Day.

Mrs. MacCauley was seeing them into the world, feeding them once they got here. Her husband, she said, does a lot of the heavy work.

But he also sells livestock feed out of their home in West Fallowfield Township, on the border with Lancaster County, Pa.

"I'm the only one here all day long," she said, so sometimes she gets the grunt work, too, such as wheeling a tractor across the land.

The MacCauleys own 27 acres -- in summertime, 14 of it in hay, the rest of it in corn and pastures for the animals.

In general, for their 17 years of farm ownership, Mrs. MacCauley has tended the sheep, and her husband has tended the fields.

"It's really a partnership," she said.

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