Thirty percent of all farmers, according to the USDA, are women. And even more serve as equal partners with men. Yet despite their prevalence in the industry, women are underrepresented in programs designed to support and assist farmers.
The Women Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) aims to correct this gap. Founded in 1994 by farmer Denise O’Brien, the organization has three program areas that address conservation, farming, and political action.
Women Landowner Outreach program is designed to teach women how to adopt conservation techniques on their land. Many of the women assisted by the program are among the graying farmers who are retiring from operating their own spread, but want to continue to keep the land in an ecologically sound manner.
The Harvesting Our Potential program, in contrast, is designed for women farm operators and would-be farmers, and includes on-farm apprenticeships and other learning opportunities. Funded in part by the US Department of Agriculture, the program provides practical experience in managing farm operations, as well as business planning.
“The opportunities are there for women to become farmers” explains WFAN’s executive director, Bridget Holcomb. “They have great ideas for farms, and they are getting the resources and experience to make their dreams happen.”
The third set of programs is called Plate to Politics and helps train, educate, and mobilize women to lead our collective conversation about food. Plate to Politics offers training workshops, networking, and other tools that help women gain an effective voice as leaders and lobbyists.
A common thread among all three programs is the notion of a support network for women who own or operate farms, or who simply care passionately about the food they eat. For farmers, this network is particularly important, as sharing effective—or not-so effective—techniques from farm to farm can be a key ingredient in the success of an enterprise. “Women are realizing that they have this network of women farmers across the country, and instead of being seen as competitors they are welcomed as part of a community,” says Holcombe.
An important event in building this network is WFAN’s annual conference, which took place earlier this month in Nebraska and featured keynote speaker Karryn Olson-Ramanujan, a permaculture teacher. The conference gathers women for tours, tastings, and workshops on diverse topics including online marketing for farmers, food security, and seed saving.
Taken together, WFANs programming and conference are helping to shift the gender imbalance in farming. It’s a fitting approach, considering that statistically, women make most of the food choices in American households. If that’s true, then they’re a driving force behind the growth of the organic food industry. WFAN helps to make that force even stronger and more visible.