Growing Change: Women, Food and Agriculture Network

Women are often at a disadvantage in the male-dominated world of agriculture. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only one out of every six full-time farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers in the U.S. is a woman. But the number of women in agriculture is rapidly increasing, even while the total number of U.S. farmers is starkly declining. The Census of Agriculture found that the amount of women in the field increased by 30 percent from 2002 to 2007.

With those numbers comes a slew of challenges for women farmers—and that’s precisely why The Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) was created.

Farms and Ranches Operated by Women

WFAN began as a working group in 1994 following the 4thInternational Conference on Women in China, where a small group of people found that they were the first working group to specifically represent women in agriculture. Since then, that small group has grown into the full service organization it is today, offering networking, education and leadership development to American women involved or interested in agriculture. “The importance behind the group was and still is empowering women, but in the realm of healthy food and farming,” Executive Director Leigh Adcock explains.

Leigh shares that female farmers experience three kinds of isolation: geographical isolation from residing in rural areas, cultural isolation related to working in a male-dominated field and the social isolation related to both of these conditions. WFAN stands as an outlet to provide support for women facing social stigma, while also assisting with problems that all farmers face, such as access to land or capital or adopting conservation practices.

Farm Aid first teamed up with WFAN in 2008, following a devastating flood in the Midwest that threatened farm families across the region. After connecting with our farm advocate, Joel Morton, the two organizations joined forces to build a coalition of groups working on relief efforts. Farm Aid President Willie Nelson visited Leigh shortly after to deliver a $10,000 check in support of that critical work. Since then, WFAN remains one of Farm Aid’s trusted referrals in our Farmer Resource Network.

Willie Nelson & Leigh AdcockWillie Nelson meets with Leigh Adcock to discuss helping Midwestern farmers cope with flooding in 2008.

WFAN works not only with experienced farmers, but also farmwives, non-farming landowners, beginning farmers and women connected to agriculture that are interested in leadership roles. Its three programs are designed to address the different needs of these women: Harvesting our Potential, Women Caring for the Land, and Plate to Politics.

Harvesting Our Potential is the oldest program WFAN offers. This experiential program connects women interested in entering farming with internship opportunities where they can work on an Iowa farm under the leadership of a skilled mentor for 8 to 12 weeks. The organization continues to provide this unique service that is mutually beneficial to both the aspiring and experienced farmers for networking and business planning.

In the state of Iowa, where WFAN is headquartered, women own or co-own about 50 percent of farmland. Women Caring for the Land, is a conservation manual for non-operator landowners, catered to women with any level of education. Though comprehensible and accessible for women of all ages, it is specifically designed as a useful tool to reach the growing population of landowners 65-years-old or older, to ensure ongoing conservation of their land.

Plate to Politics is an emerging addition to WFAN’s services in collaboration with the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, designed to connect women with leadership roles nationwide “from the farmhouse to the White House,” as Leigh puts it. Today, women win elections at the same rate as men. The only reason more women don’t run for office, Leigh maintains, is because they aren’t asked to or don’t consider themselves viable candidates. Plate for Politics acts as a platform to empower women involved in food and agriculture with the tools needed to confidently step into leadership roles. “I think empowering women is really crucial,” Leigh shares. “Having women involved in food and farm policy is going to change the way we farm and the way we treat our land and our health.”

Farm Aid recently supported the Plate for Politics program with a $5,000 grant. This grant enabled WFAN to create a series of six webinars available online to educate women on how they can serve as food and farm leaders.

With the recent rapid growth of the organization, WFAN hopes to assess its program areas for potential new projects, such as training on how to access subsidies to health care.

To stay connected with the women WFAN works with, the organization hosts potlucks and an annual conference. This year, the 4th National Conference for Women in Sustainable Agriculture will take place from November 6 – 8 in Des Moines, Iowa.

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