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The Rise of Women in Agriculture: Planting Their Own Paths

The editor of Prairie Farmer discusses family farm life, her career, and inspirational female farmer stories.

More women are climbing into tractors, applying fertilizer, selling grain, and making important business decisions for their operations. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the number of female producers increased by 27% from 2012 to 2017, to 1.2 million female farmers working 388 million acres and making almost $150 billion in sales. The numbers are impressive, but they don’t tell the whole story.

Women are increasingly interested in embarking on an agriculture-related career path and starting to take more ownership in their work, their value, and their roles. In this episode of In the Driver’s Seat, Holly Spangler, who has covered farm production and management news for Prairie Farmer magazine for two decades, is the featured guest. As an award-winning editor and family farmer, she brings meaningful production experience and insights. Holly and her family, including three teenagers, farm in western Illinois where they raise corn, soybeans, and cattle.

Below are highlights from ADM’s conversation with Holly

Holly SpanglerQ: Harvest is around the corner. What is that time like for your family?

It is a lot of work. It’s exciting and the best time of the year for probably the first four to six weeks. Then everybody gets tired and it’s more of a grind to get the work done. However, it’s a good chance to get people together. I like to gather people in an open field for breaks. Our harvest crew looks a little different than it used to — my 16-year-old son runs the tractor and auger wagon now.

Q: Can you tell us about the grain marketing process for your operation?

My husband makes most of our grain marketing decisions. He’s learned a ton over the years and even went back to school after college to learn more about risk management and tools for selling grain. His parents ran a grain merchandising business for years and his mom was a successful grain merchandiser. She still sells a lot of her family’s crop today. 

Q: What types of stories do you like to cover?

I love the people of agriculture. Anytime I can tell a story about a person and their experience, it makes the topic more palatable and interesting for our readers. For example, if we’re writing an economic-focused story, we can’t be too dry or we’ve lost the reader. I’d prefer to start with a farmer story – share their experience about why they bought a particular piece of ground, when they did, at the price that they did, how they made that decision, and how they felt about it. I like to describe what the room was like that day and put readers in other people’s shoes. You draw in the reader and then you get to the nuts and bolts of the topic.

Q: Who are some of the notable women in agriculture you’ve written about over the years?

I’ve written about a number of notable women. Two who come to mind are Linnea Kooistra and Lydia Holste.

Linnea is a dairy farmer in northern Illinois. She is well-known for her agriculture advocacy efforts. She’s active in her community and a member of the U.S. Dairy Sustainability Council. She was the first woman in Illinois to receive a Master Farmer award from Prairie Farmer. She has an incredible heart and soul for people, and especially for up-and-coming women in agriculture.

Lydia grew up farming and as a teenager was applying fertilizer, helping with the family seed dealership, and learning payroll and accounting. Before Lydia and her sister went to college, their dad told them they had to work away from the farm for three years to learn a new skill. After graduation, Lydia worked in technical support for a precision agricultural and construction equipment company. After three years, she and her sister came back to the farm with new skills and new husbands to help run the operation.

Q: Do female farmers today view themselves differently than they did a few decades ago?

My mother and mother-in-law both proudly called themselves farm wives, but they were going beyond that title. They were running tractors, keeping books, drying grain, getting cows in, and helping make financial decisions. Today, we’re seeing more women claim the title for what they do and many refer to themselves as simply “farmer” since they are doing a lot of the same work as their spouse and other family members, or even on their own.

Q: What do you think is attracting more women to the farming profession?

There are certainly more women farming than we’ve seen in the past, but it’s hard to quantify. The USDA data shows a positive change, but we have to remember the 2017 Census questions were revised to better capture that demographic. We’ll continue to have more clarity on this segment growth in future years.

Even so, the upward trend is encouraging to see. In the younger generations, more women are choosing row crop production as a career. There are a lot of things that are making that happen. The labor requirement has changed and technology has made it easier. Farmers don’t have to throw bags of seed into 24 different row units at one time. It’s a bulk-fill system for many operations, which makes it easier and more manageable. Also at the university level, earning degrees in various agriculture programs is becoming a more popular choice for female students.

Q: What other changes are you noticing in agriculture?

We’ve seen a change in how farmers and others in the industry perceive the information that they receive. I’ve heard farmers say they don’t care where the information comes from as long as it’s credible. If you’re a woman in ag – know what you’re talking about, know your field, know your seed, and know your chemistry. I think farmers in general respect people who know what they’re talking about, and who can provide them with the information and the value they need. That’s changed over time.

Q: Any final thoughts to share?

Before we know it, we’ll be in the field again to see how we did with crop production. We struggle all season long, navigating weather-related patterns – too much rain, not enough rain, too dry, too cold, too hot, too much wind, hail – it never ends. Despite the stress that goes into producing your crop, it’s important to remember it’s going to be okay. We’ve talked about mental health and no matter what happens – as a farmer, you are more than your farm. You’re a person who has value and is loved by your household and community.

Learn More

For more insights on women in the agriculture industry, listen to the latest podcast episode with Holly Spangler. And, as always, contact your ADM representative if you have questions about grain marketing, fertilizer, or crop insurance.

ADM is providing this communication for informational purposes, and it is not a solicitation or offer to purchase or sell commodities. The recommendations in this communication do not take into account any particular individual’s or company’s objectives or needs, which should be considered before engaging in any commodity transactions based on these recommendations. The sources for the information and recommendations in this communication are believed to be reliable, but ADM does not warrant or guarantee the accuracy of the information or recommendations. ADM or its affiliates may hold or take positions for their own accounts that are different from the positions recommended in this communication. The information and recommendations in this communication are subject to change without notice.