March 4, 2021 | Stephanie Ostermann

Forgotten Female Farmers | Ag’s Missed Opportunity

Recently, in a conversation about diversity and inclusion in agriculture with a coworker, he asked me a question that I’m sure comes up in many such conversations. 

“Do they even want to be farmers?” 

In this case, “they” included women and also Black, Indigenous and other people of colour – groups that are underrepresented in farming, and more broadly, in the agriculture sector overall. We were talking about how to welcome these groups in, why agriculture is currently mostly white and mostly male, and what changes would need to be made at all levels of the industry to make the change possible. 

My response to the question was that it’s very difficult to “want” to be anything when you can’t see anyone who looks like you in these roles. It’s vitally important that we as an industry increase the visibility of and opportunities for these groups to take a more active, more visible part in agriculture. 

Increasing Representation of Women in Farming is a Shared Responsibility

Every company, organization, and individual in agriculture bears the responsibility for increasing the opportunity for women farmers. This responsibility is different at different stages of the agrifood system and while this article focuses on how to make marketing more inclusive, for most organizations, this endeavour will require both internal and external work, as well as widespread policy change.

Investing in growing the number of women farmers, whatever that looks like for your organization, will pay off. According to the Women’s Entrepreneurial Knowledge Hub (WEKH), women entrepreneurs contributed $148 billion to the Canadian economy in 2011. Closing the gender gap could add an additional $150 billion by 2026. (And yes, WEKH also acknowledged that many farmers would be hesitant to consider themselves entrepreneurs, but I’d argue they are absolutely entrepreneurial.) 

Every company, organization, and individual in agriculture bears the responsibility for increasing the opportunity for women farmers. Click To Tweet

Considerations for Building Female Farmer Personas

Agricultural Data is Sexist 

Making your marketing more equitable starts with data-driven insights about the female farmer, while also recognizing that the numbers may not provide a full picture of the total addressable market. We’re starting here because it can be tempting to discount marketing to female farmers in view of the data available.

Female Farm Operators in North America as a Proportion of Total Farm Operators
CanadaUnited StatesMexico
Female Farm Operators (Total)29%36%3%
Female Farm Operators on Single Operator Farms (or where the female operator has primary decision making)12%38%n/a
Female Farm Operators on Multi-Operator Farms (where at least one other operator is male)33%56%n/a
Total Farmland Owned by Female Farm Operators*33%33%11%
*Female farm operators are more likely than male farm operators to rent the land they work on, so this number does not accurately represent the total proportion of acres female operators farm.

When it comes to quantifying the number of female operators and what their contributions represent, multiple challenges arise. Bias in data is a considerable factor here. The way that countries have collected data in the past makes it difficult to compare to data collected today. For example, in 1978, only one operator could be identified in the US Agricultural Census – likely the patriarch of a family farm. In 2002, the number of reportable operators rose to three, and then to four in 2017 (though they are now identified as “producers” instead of “operators”).

While it can be tempting to indicate that the number of female farmers is rising, the number of female farmers may have always been relatively static up until now, they were simply underreported. Consider as well that the majority of farm partnerships in Canada do not have a written agreement

Making your marketing more equitable starts with data driven insights about the female farmer, while also recognizing that the numbers may not provide a full picture of the total addressable market. Click To Tweet

Another factor in the underrepresentation of women in agricultural data may be attributed to the types of farm labour that are considered “farming”. Where women are part-owners of operations, they often take on management roles – managing the finances and on-farm staff, keeping up to date on advancements in technology, tackling the day-to-day intricacies that ensure her male counterparts can focus on the activity of farming – in addition to traditional family caregiving responsibilities. Increasingly, they also take on off-farm work

This disparity can even be seen in the way women choose to identify themselves. Studies in 2013 and 2014 indicate that women are much less likely to identify themselves as “farmers”, even when their contributions to the operation are critical to its success.

With those factors considered, there is a strong correlation between aging farmers and the increase in female operators. Women typically outlive men (by approximately seven years), which can often mean a documented shift in control of family owned operations from husband to wife. 

The “Glass Hayloft” 

The mythic nostalgia of the dutiful farmwife notwithstanding, women in farming face numerous challenges and these challenges often add insight to the specific attitudes, values, beliefs, and desires of female farmers. 

The barriers faced by women farmers is mirrored in many traditionally male industries. Women farmers have reported that they struggle to access capital, aren’t taken seriously by male industry peers and don’t see themselves represented in leadership roles in the industry – both in agribusiness and in producer and community organizations. 

The mythic nostalgia of the dutiful farmwife notwithstanding, women in farming face numerous challenges and these challenges often add insight to the specific attitudes, values, beliefs, and desires of female farmers. Click To Tweet

Women farmers also struggle to find a balance between caregiving responsibilities, off-farm employment, and the demands of the farm. Many find their income potential limited after motherhood, and may not have time or resources to access training or attend conferences, especially if childcare is a consideration. In addition, in the United States, their off-farm employment may be critical to the provision of health care insurance for the family. 

In a Pennsylvania State University study of female farm operators in the US, published in February 2021, researchers found that women farmers are more likely to run smaller operations, often focusing on specialty production practices, agritourism, or direct to consumer business models. They tend to run operations located near major metropolitan centres, and in areas with a higher concentration of farms, possibly to address an increased need for childcare and social networking opportunities. 

8 Tips for Marketing to Women Farmers 

Whether truly increasing or not, female farmers are a key demographic for agriculture brands. Even in cases where agreements or documentation doesn’t exist, female operators are often primary decision-makers, or they are a key influencer to the primary decision-maker.

When marketing to women farmers, it is not enough to simply throw a few photos of women in fields onto your website or printed collateral. It is also not enough to switch to using images of crops instead. Below are 8 actionable tips for marketing to women in farming:

  • Watch your language. Typically, advertising copy directed at a male audience focuses heavily on “power” words, proof, and problem-solving. The stereotype is tired, but a quick scan of advertising directed at male-dominated industries quickly demonstrates this gendered language trope. Women tend to find solutions more compelling, especially those that indicate an understanding of the broader context of the problem itself. Scan your existing copy on all pieces for stereotyping in the language you use, from tag lines to brochures. Look for opportunities to address the unique needs of your female farmer persona. 
  • Don’t be patronizing. It probably goes without saying, but women farmers don’t need pink or feminized versions of products. They also don’t need that in swag, collateral, or advertising. Don’t talk down to them, or assume that female farmers are new to the business of farming. Women are particularly attuned to signals that point to sexism, especially in situations where they have long faced barriers, and they will bring those perceptions into every interaction
  • Meet them where they are. As with any persona, it’s important to consider that the digital channels where you’ll find your female farmer persona and when she’ll be there are likely to differ from your male personas. Include programmatic advertising and retargeting in your media mix.
  • Nurture their need to discover. Typical female buyers are “discovery-oriented”, which is to say that they go into the buyer’s journey with an open mind. They tend to do extensive research prior to making a decision and are comfortable with changing their mind at any step in the process. Female B2B buyers also see the in-person meeting as an opportunity to learn more, rather than as the final step before a closed deal. Feed the female farmer’s desire for information with plenty of easily digestible content that addresses problems and solutions she faces in her unique role in her operation. 
  • Make it easy. Reduce friction as much as possible. Make it easy for the female farmer to connect with your sales team, coordinate purchases, or access after-purchase support. In Facebook’s Emerging Trends Research conducted in late 2020, nine out of ten people surveyed indicated they were actively looking for ways to save time. These “Convenience Seekers” are willing to pay to save time – including 72% of American respondents. This desire for increased convenience is true of all farmers, but might be especially true for women farmers, who are balancing the demands of farm, family, and sometimes off-farm careers.
  • Check your loyalty incentives. An all-expenses-paid trip to the next conference or big football game may be less appealing to women farmers, who will often have to consider childcare in their plans. Female buyers value relationships and may be more interested in perks like one-to-one consultations, small, exclusive events, or family-focused experiences. 
  • Empower female leaders. As mentioned at the start of this article, women farmers will be more present in the industry when they can see other women in leadership roles. This includes the influencers you choose to use for your marketing, whether it be for customer testimonials or as subject matter experts in your content creation. It also includes your internal teams, from the c-suite to sales reps. Women are an asset you can’t afford to ignore.
  • Support community causes. 90% of women reinvest their income back into their communities and families (compared to 30-40% for men). Demonstrate your company’s commitment to the things that matter to women in farming by supporting relevant causes – or starting your own initiatives.
Young female operators are a growing demographic in farming, and they’re coming to the table with more education and insight into future-forward farming practices than ever before. Click To Tweet

A considered approach to including women farmers in your segmentation and marketing mix will pay off in the end. As we outlined in a previous article, young female operators are a growing demographic in farming, and they’re coming to the table with more education and insight into future-forward farming practices than ever before. Building long-lasting customer relationships with them starts with seeing them in the first place. We’re ready for some fresh faces in farming. Are you?

Author’s Note: The use of the terms female/women and male/men in this article is a reflection of gender selections made available on Canada, US and Mexico agricultural census forms, and are not intended to be exclusive of any other gender identity.

Stephanie Ostermann

Stephanie has eight years of experience in content strategy across all channels; specializing in content creation, execution and deployment, social media scheduling and community management. She holds her Bachelor of Arts in Professional Communication from Royal Roads University. Stephanie wonders how communities define and redefine themselves both on and offline. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.