The Danners have been in the farming business for four generations in Aledo, Illinois. During that time — 114 years in all — they’ve never had a woman running their corn and soybean operation.
Kate Danner, 26, is getting ready to take over for her dad.
“Almost anyone can run the tractor,” said Danner, who graduated from Iowa State University in 2012 with degrees in agronomy, farm management and environmental studies. “It’s really the money in the books and how good of a business manager you are that helps the farmer ride the test of time.”
At a time when a third of U.S. farmers are 65 or older and fewer young people are joining them, more women are stepping in to help fill the void, lured by surging agricultural profit and technological advances that have reduced the industry’s reliance on manual labor. In 2012, females accounted for 14 percent of the 2.1 million principal farm operators, up from 5 percent in 1978, government data show.
Agriculture has boomed over the past decade in the United States, the world’s largest agricultural exporter. Farm income this decade is the highest ever, averaging more than $116 billion annually since 2010, more than double what it was in the 1990s, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show. Land values are at records, after prices surged in recent years for corn and soybeans, the two biggest crops, and for livestock.
While women have always played important roles on family farms, more are running the operation and showing up in new markets for niche crops, organic produce or direct sales to consumers through community-supported agriculture or farmers markets, said Michael Stolp, a business adviser for Northwest Farm Credit Services in Spokane, Washington.
With seeds that resist pests and tractors that drive themselves, operating a farm today requires less manual labor and more business-management skills, creating more opportunities for women, he said.
“This is way more than cows and plows,” Stolp said. “As farming becomes more complex, you need more diverse perspectives. Farming is becoming more professionalized, which means multiple career paths.”
Hannah Poush and her husband, Adam, run her family’s Cider Works Farms, an apple, pear and cherry orchard in Orondo, Washington, founded in 1980 by her father, who later added a retail shop. She manages the business, from payroll and bookkeeping to complying with food-safety standards.